I first heard about 'The Slap' a few years ago and was intrigued by the story. It took me a few years to get my hands on it, and unfortunately it did little but disappoint me. It was meant to be a book about a young unruly boy getting slapped by an adult and how this one event reverberated throughout the lives of everyone that was there when it happened. Instead it seemed like a pointless collective diary of everyone that was there. Each ridiculously long chapter was dedicated to a character and whilst some chapters were more interesting than others, they had little to do with the most important subject matter i.e. the slap!
I expected the story to focus on the reactions to the slap that takes place, and it did, but to a very small extent. The slap itself happens quite early on in the book, at a friendly barbeque. The child that gets slapped is badly misbehaving - in fact, he has a reputation for being a spoilt child. One of the adults at the barbeque loses it with him and ends up slapping him across his face. The barbeque comes to an abrupt end, with the parents of the child furious. Some of the people at the barbeque think the child got what he deserved and that it was the fault of the parents for not disciplining him properly. Others take the view that it is never ok to hit a child.
You would think that with a subject matter such as this the author would explore the varying views about the slap. Especially as this is a very real issue that is often discussed these days. After all, it was not so long as ago that children were smacked or physically punished in schools or by any adult who believed that they were misbehaving and few people would have blinked an eye. Instead of exploring what is a very currently debated issue, the author decides to tell us the details of most of the characters that were present at the barbeque. It just seemed pointless. There was a lot of focus on Greeks in Australia (the author of the book is Greek, and the story is set in Australia), and the sex lives of each character. In fact, each chapter had something sexual in it and the description was often unnecessarily graphic.
The book was also annoyingly long. My copy was almost 500 pages long, and as the text was quite small, it took ages to read although I was desperate to get it over with as soon as I could.
I wouldn't really recommend this, although it was shortlisted for a Man-Booker Prize. It was extremely disappointing, despite having a very promising subject matter.
I seriously need to stop impulse buying. I also need to start ignoring three for two offers. In addition I need to read the first couple of pages before buying instead of just relying on the book cover. My brother can get away with that kind of behaviour, I can't. I just end up with tat, as this purchase once again showed. However, my best defence against buying this sort of tat is to stop wandering into Waterstones to 'have a look around'. That is the most lethal mistake I can ever make. I can't even blame this one on holiday reading, it truly caught my interest and I am ashamed to admit it.
To begin with I'm going to quote directly from the back cover of the book as this will give you an idea of why this book really caught my attention even if it didn't hold it. The premise of the book is brilliant, it is just the fact that it doesn't live up to it which is disappointing. "At a suburban barbecue one afternoon. A man slaps an unruly boy. It's a single act of violence. But this even reverberates through the lives of everyone who witnesses it happen. Whose side are you on?"But in reality this only gives the first 'dramatic' part of the plot, and the ridiculous thing is that the book actually gets marginally better once the advertised 'plot has finished and it starts moving forwards. The first section of the book revolves around this slap and the direct consequences of the mans actions including the court case that follows. The supposed focus is on how this splits a group of friends down the middle as each take sides, and what had been a fairly close group of friends becomes split and relationships become strained. The female friends get more bitchy and the male group gets more aggressive. But when the book moves on it moves into the lives of not only the main group of friends which the first section of the book is based around, but also into the lives of the lesser characters. This means that it splits into many smaller, individual plots and it becomes a much better read, but it's tricky to give too much away about this without ruining the overall plot in case you ever actually want to read this. Personally I'd take my warning and stay well away.
Here is the double whammy of the book. I can cope with an poorly managed plot if the characters make up for it, but no, the characters are awful The author relies far too much on cursing and sex to actually build his characters effectively, and the creations that he has built are almost to a man unlikeable and irritating. I would have thought that the main purpose of a book like this would be to make the reader think, to engage them and as the cover actually asks, to make you pick a side. Instead you just think that they're all cretins.
The automatic thinking of many, including myself, would be to side with the child - a four year old boy named Hugo. I mean a four year old is fairly defenceless and should be fairly likable, right? Or at least cute? Wrong. Unfortunately this is impossible because he is a spoilt brat who completely and utterly deserved everything he got. If I'd have been there I'd probably have hit him long before the bloke in the story did, and I'd have probably tried to ensure that I had something heavy in my hand at the time. So then you come to the man who slapped him, and who did, in a way, have a reason considering the boy was not only an irritating cretin but was also about to hit his own child with a baseball bat. But you can't side with him either because he is a genuinely bullish, aggressive and unlikable character. He just isn't a character you can empathise with, although he does make a very good point when he says; "Your child deserved it. But I don't blame him, I blame his bogan parents".
You see the characters get no better in the slightest when you move across to Hugo's parents; in fact it might even get worse. Rose is over protective, caters to Hugo's every whim and is still breast feeding him even though he's four years old. She's completely weak willed and spineless in some ways which only makes you detest her more, but at the same time she is a manipulative, vindictive bitch who is not above using anything to get her own ends. Needless to say, you don't like her. Her husband Harry is a weak minded, aggressive alcoholic and the general impression you get is that the entire family could seriously do with a good slapping, not just the child. The friendship group around them is no better than this, particularly as it relies on stereotypical clichés and fails to add anything new; Aisha and Anouk are both two dimensional as manipulative females who act in a remarkably loose manner for absolutely no reason. And Hector, Aisha's husband, is an aggressive slob who sleeps around. Christos Tsiolkas is working on age old and largely out of date gender stereotypes, and he isn't even doing it well which is completely inexcusable.
As the book progresses Christos Tsiolkas does make an attempt to improve on this lamentably poor situation. But unfortunately it is too little, too late. It's all too sudden and completely without tact. You can't make an asshole a saint overnight particularly when you give no reason for it, and trying to just makes the writer look like an eejit. It seems unconvincing and somewhat ridiculous. The only really good characters are those who were side-characters for most of the way through the novel and didn't have a part to play when it really mattered. Hector's parents are very good examples of this; Manolis and Koula barely appear as 'real' characters until near the end of the book, but once they do Christos Tsiolkas excels with them. They end up being well-rounded characters who you can empathise with and understand. Their struggle to find old friends and to come to terms with the losses of old age is particularly striking and emotive. What Christos fails to grasp in the earlier section he gets here; with Manoli in particular he grips the reader and forces them to wwatch the pain and helplessness that Manoli finds in finding old friends both alive and dead.
To put it very plainly, you'll be hard pressed to find a page that does not contain at least one obscenity. The *F* word and the *C* word seem to be two of his favourites in particular. Now, I'm not a prude and I'm not too old fashioned. I have no objection to occasional swearing or when it is used in appropriate contexts such as a prison setting or as in my previous review; Animal's People where it is effective. But when it is littered throughout with no apparent reason or purpose other than swearing for the sake of swearing I get irritated. It is crude, it is pointless and I have to admit that I find the *C* word very offensive. But when you consider that this is set in a middle class, fairly affluent society then it just seems that Christos Tsiolkas either has no grasp of decent English or is being deliberately obtuse. In a similar vein, his use of sex is frequent, blunt and crude. It's kind of like being hit repeatedly over the head by a crow bar. The women often behave as little more than whores and the men are no better. Again, if sex serves a function in a novel or if it is sensitively or decently done then I have no problem, but when it's sex for the sake of sex I start to wonder whether I bought a novel or porn. Then I realise that nobody in their right mind would buy such long winded porn. In fact nobody in their right mind would write such long winded porn. I know that sex sells, but surely any vaguely self respecting author shouldn't feel like they need to sell out THAT badly!?
Sex sells. So do drugs. And here we have the whole cycle of sex, drugs and rock n roll. But nobody in the novel ever suffers a low from speed or ecstasy, nobody ever has a bad trip on LSD. It's all wonderful and there are no side effects. Even the parents seem to have no issue with their teenagers taking drugs as is shown by one parent asking her son whether they'll be drugs at a party. He responds that they'll be weed, speed and probably an E, but her reaction is outstanding: 'Oh baby, I guess you're all grown up.' Realistic? Not on my life. For a start, what teenager would tell their mother what drugs they are planning on taking? Secondly, would your parents react like that? I know that neither of my sets would. And probably most importantly, is this the message we want to be sending out about drugs? Because we all know that their are side effects, there are lows and there is a reason why they are illegal; but this isn't portrayed in the book.
Well, to be fair you've probably already had a full earful of my opinion. But what I don't understand is why this book has such fantastic critical acclaim. It's the winner of the Commonwealth writers prize and was long listed for the Man Bookers Prize. Everybody was raving about it:"A tremendously vital book in every sense. Completed at a gallop, it fairly crackles alone, juiced up with novelistic license and peeled-eyeball candour, the characters driven by their appetites into a thrilling, vital approximation of what it is to be alive."
And this kind of praise isn't rare, so clearly a lot of people disagree with my opinion. But neither I nor a lady at my local pub who was reading it at the same time get it. To me this was crude, unrealistic and appalling in terms of plot and character development for the first three quarters of the novel. It's content, language, style, plot and characters seemed completely lacking. In the later sections of the book I actually found myself enjoying it, but for most of it I was forcing my way through it for the sole purpose of writing this review. Very much an, 'I read this so you don't have to' kind of moment! I just don't understand how it this is a phenomenal international bestseller. There aren't even any translation issues which can be blamed. It is a fantastic idea, but it is very, very badly implemented.
Surely you've heard enough of me by now? If I'm honest I wouldn't have given this one star if Dooyoo allowed me to do that, unfortunately Dooyoo doesn't give me that option. Christos Tsiolkas did try to redeem himself with the later part of the book, but it truly was too little, too late. But my overall view is that it really pays to read the first couple of pages, or at least sentences, of a book before buying it:"His eyes still shut, a dream dissolving and already impossible to recall, Hector's hand sluggishly reached across the bed. Good, Aish was up. He let out a victorious fart, burying his face deep into the pillow to escape the clammy methane stink."
Trust me, it gets no better. In fact, it gets far, far worse. From now on I will make a concerted effort not to impulse buy books... Don't waste your money. It's not worth it.
When I first spotted this book I was intrigued by its premise, so I was glad when it was selected as this month's book group choice.
-- The context --
This is Tsiolkas' fourth novel but it is the first of his books to be published so widely and has gained him a wealth of critical and public attention on an international scale. 'The Slap' has been nominated for various awards, including being long-listed for the 2010 Man Booker prize, and won various other awards, including the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Such is its popularity in Tsiolkas' native Australia that it has been developed into an 8 part TV adaptation. However, the book has received more diverse responses in the UK and Tsiolkas has been accused of being misogynistic and bland by some critics.
-- The Premise --
At a suburban barbecue a man slaps a child who is not his own. Reactions are split and the novel explores eight different viewpoints. Each guest attended the barbecue but their viewpoint is not limited to this one event. Instead, Tsiolkas aims to explore the modern family through his presentation of these eight characters and their lives.
-- The viewpoints --
There are a range of characters presented, including a 17 year old gay guy, a middle aged man on the cusp of an affair, a grandfather and a successful veterinarian. There is an equal balance of male and female characters. Rather than organising the book into chapters, Tsiolkas has divided it into eight sections by its narrators. This does mean that each section is quite long, varying from around 45 pages to 90 pages long. Although there are suitable 'resting places' in each section where the locale or focus of the action changes, I was very conscious of the 'chunky' nature of the viewpoints. I prefer shorter chapters, especially when the story runs to nearly 500 pages. Each viewpoint is interesting and there is enough happening or being revealed to keep readers interested, but while I was reading this I read several other books and had to keep prompting myself to pick this one up instead. I think this was due to the lengthy sections rather than the actual plot or characterisations.
I felt the perspectives worked well together because the characters had important relationships that bound them together, so although there were new characters introduced in each perspective, there was a core of characters that recurred throughout. The new characters were easy enough to remember while required as each perspective was sustained and then forget when moving on to a new viewpoint. In this way, the book covers approximately a year which helps to give it a sense of breadth and realism.
The central event - the slap - also recurs in some form in each section and I felt that it did work as a unifying device. It did not dominate any section as there was plenty happening in each, but it was always present to a greater or lesser degree. I thought this was good as the book is heavily marketed as being about this incident so I felt that it should form the core of the narrative. Interestingly, the women and men generally fall into two opposing camps: the women are horrified; the men can't see what the problem is. This relates to the general attitude of the men in this book. They see violence as a solution, especially in their relationships with women. I can think of only two male characters - the gay teen and the elderly grandfather - that do not use violence at some point in the novel, and much of the violence is uglier for being directed at wives.
Marriage in this book is certainly not a panacea. In fact, most of the married characters fantasise about being single again, most of the married men cheat on their wives, (the central couple cheat on each other) and the happiest character in the novel is a woman who rejects marriage and motherhood. The relationships between the couples are at once convincing - the tiny domestic tensions, the frustrations that have clearly mounted up over the years - and horrifying. Surely, in real-life relationships, this near-hatred is balanced by affection and other positive feelings? The brutal depictions of sex seem closer to rape than anything else. There is a lot of sex but no tenderness. The women generally submit rather than enjoy. I do not know whether any of this brutality arises due to Tsiolkas' lack of experience with women (he has been in a stable homosexual relationship since his teens and admits to seeking advice about the sex scenes from female friends) but I did find it rather unpleasant and thought it was a shame that this negative, rather grubby impression of sex was not balanced elsewhere in the novel.
-- The lives --
Despite the variety of viewpoints and the depth of introspection provided in each section, the characters generally are rather similar. They are frustrated: with each other, with their lives, with their families. For me, this was the dominant feeling in the novel. Whether the other person involved was a mother-in-law, a husband or a friend, frustration seemed to be the default response. Part of me feels that this is a very accurate depiction of human relationships, but I felt the overall tone to be pessimistic: this is all there is in Tsiolkas' world. I think I probably do like my fiction a little fluffier.
Not only do they share their frustrations, but they share coping mechanisms: sex and drugs. I am not exaggerating when I say that ninety per cent of the characters in this book drink, smoke and take recreational drugs. I do not know whether Tsiolkas is depicting a particularly hedonistic section of Australian society (he is adamant that his novel is completely true to life) but I found the prevalence of drug taking in particular to be problematic. I believe in teenagers scoring a few E, but I don't believe in them casually shooting up prior to a party. Similarly, I can believe a parent saying 'Look, I don't mind you doing X but nothing else,' but cannot seriously imagine the mother of a teen just asking, 'What will you be taking? Uh-huh, and what else?' Maybe I am seriously out of date! I did not find this culture was something I could relate to at all and am unable to comment on how accurately this may reflect (sections of) Australian society. For me, it detracted slightly from the overall realism of the novel.
One of the biggest difficulties I had was finding a character to like. I am fully aware that you don't have to like a character to enjoy a book, but in a book with so many characters I would hope to find at least one character I liked. I didn't. However, this isn't a criticism of the book, not at all. As Tsiolkas presents you with the deepest thoughts and instinctive responses of each character you are given an insight into instinctively selfish personalities. Whether they are responding to a mid-life crisis ("her impulse was to order him to stop it, to not be a child") or a friend in need ("she wished he hadn't said a thing") their thoughts focus on themselves before their words and actions soothe the other person.
I think that looking at a person so close up and being aware of all their selfish desires and petty hatreds works to distance you from them, to make you dislike them. I imagine that if the perspective was changed, the other person would seem equally horrid. I thought Tsiolkas definitely succeeded in creating real characters in this way (though I wish he didn't feel it necessary to include descriptions of so many characters using the toilet or touching themselves) and that it is a very Good Thing that humans can't all hear each others' thoughts!
I thought that another strength of the novel was the way my perspective on characters changed as the different viewpoints developed. In particular my response to Harry (the child slapper) underwent a serious change as his 'real' character emerged and I actually went back to reread earlier sections of the book to see how my new understanding 'fit' with what had gone before. I liked the way the different viewpoints supported this developing understanding.
-- Criticisms --
Tsiolkas has been criticised by some reviewers for the misogyny and racism in the book. ('Wog', for example, is used casually by many characters throughout the book. One character repeatedly refers to her daughter-in-law as 'The Indian' and considers her to be not good enough for her Greek son.) His response is firm: just because his characters are deeply racist / misogynistic does not mean he is, and readers who accuse him of such thoughts and feelings are lazy. Clearly, he has a point. A racist character does not equal a racist author. And yet... So many of the characters' attitudes towards women and other races are abhorrent, and when there are no other voices to countermand this overall ethos, doesn't the work as a whole risk endorsing such attitudes by presenting them as the norm? I do think this is problematic.
Tsiolkas has also suggested that we read books to affirm who we are rather than to question it. Perhaps he would say he is encouraging us to question our own deeply held attitudes, but isn't he simply affirming any prejudices readers may have by suggesting they are shared by everyone and therefore, to a certain extent, 'natural'?
-- "Neighbours as Philip Roth might have written it" (according to the Sunday Times) --
The quotation above works quite well as a summary of the book. This is essentially about relationships, the minutiae of everyday life and the darkness in human souls.
Overall I thought that this was an interesting read that delves deeply into the characters' thoughts and feelings to explore a 'truth' Tsiolkas perceives in Australia's modern society. The interlinked sections work to form a coherent whole and, although their lives are actually very similar, the characters are convincing as individuals. Tsiolkas embraces bodily functions, swearing and rather 'rough' sex so this would not be suitable for readers who prefer 'gentler' books.
I found myself a little frustrated initially as there were so many characters introduced in the first section that I simply couldn't keep track, but I did not feel that this was a problem in subsequent sections. Due to the focus of the plot on minor and major elements of domestic life, and the sheer length of each section, I did not find this to be a compelling read. However, once I picked it up the book was always easy to settle into and interesting enough to keep me reading for a chunk of time.
The ending is perhaps a little abrupt, largely due to the nature of the narrative structure. I wanted to know how Aisha and Hector's relationship had been affected by a startling event in the last section, but as this section was told from the perspective of a younger character, it was not possible to know this. However, each section has a sort of climax for that particular character and it is possible to anticipate generally how their life will continue.
Although Tsiolkas is adamant that this is a realistic portrayal of modern life and relationships I will continue to hope that in real life people are a bit more satisfied with their lot, and a bit less prone to serious drug use! I do think this was well written in that the writing flowed well and the dialogue was convincing. The book as a whole felt well structured. I wouldn't deliberately seek out another of Tsiolkas' books, but this is more a comment on my tottering To Be Read pile than on his book, which I did find interesting. I would be willing to read another one sometime in the future, if the premise sounded suitably intriguing.
This edition is available for £12.99 RRP although, of course, it is available much cheaper in the usual places (Amazon, supermarkets etc.) At nearly 500 close-typed pages it does feel worth the RRP, even though this is a paperback, but I think it unlikely that any stores are charging full price as this book has been heavily promoted. The print is easy to read and the binding feels suitably tough to survive several reads.
Hugo is one of those kids that some would say deserves a good slap. At the tender age of just four he has his mother, Rosie, wrapped round his podgy little finger and he can do no wrong in her eyes. Not everyone else thinks Hugo is adorable, the guests at Hector and Aisha's barbeque are sick of his behaviour and wish his parents would step in and discipline him; they are also disgusted to see that he is still breastfed on demand. When Hugo goes to hit another child with a cricket bat, Harry slaps him. This one slap causes a lot of trouble and leads to Harry being charged with assault. Opinion is divided amongst the group of friends and family; some think that Hugo deserved to be slapped and that since his parents would not discipline him it was right that Harry jumped in while others think that it is always wrong for an adult to hit a child and hope that Harry is punished. The fallout from this one incident is wide ranging with family loyalties and friendship stretched to the limit.
'The Slap' is set in Melbourne and is told through the eyes of several different characters that only seem to be loosely linked. We have second generation Greek Hector, his Indian wife Aisha, working class Australian Rosie and Gary, the elderly Greek patriarch Manolis, Hector's cousin Harry, Aisha's Saturday girl Connie and her gay best friend Richie as the main characters. It was really confusing keeping up with all the names let alone working out how they were linked together. Each of the characters stories is told at great length and then the author throws in how the incident at the barbeque has had an impact on their lives almost as an afterthought, the book looks at their lives up until the trial and beyond.
There were several times that I felt like giving up on 'The Slap' and consigning it to my pile of half finished books but then something would catch my attention again. Some parts of the book work really well, the story of the elderly Greek Manolis was both moving and fascinating. Other parts did not work at all; Connie and Richie could have been left out of the book entirely without losing much from the story for example. Looking at the lives of three generations with different cultural and social classes and how they view both family obligations and the importance of friendship was really interesting.
What didn't work so well in 'The Slap' were all of the subplots. It was difficult to keep up with who was having affairs with whom and whose marriage was on the brink of collapse. There is a lot of sex in the book and Tsiolkas does not write sex scenes well from a female perspective with them all sounding like far fetched male fantasies. There is also a lot of bad language, drug taking and casual racism in the book with all of the different races represented taking a dislike to one another.
'The Slap' is a bit of a mixed bag; the critics loved it and it won the Commonwealth writers prize as well as being longlisted for the Man Booker prize. The reading public don't think so highly of it giving it only two stars on Amazon. I was a bit worried the book would be stuffy since prizewinning novels are often very difficult to read but it is written in a very accessible manner. It was really nice to see a book set in modern Australia and it looks behind the scenes of suburban life and shows what people really get up to. It's a book that I'm glad I picked up but it was hard work getting through some parts so it gets three stars from me.