How would you react if someone slapped your child? This is only one of the questions about family, parenting, marriage, and friendship this book (published 2008) invites you to make judgements about, though don’t expect any easy answers.
Aisha and Hector are having a barbeque for friends and family. They are a diverse bunch in terms of ethnic origin, religion, social aspiration and achievement, and age. All is going reasonably well until three year old Hugo won’t accept that he’s out in a game of backyard cricket. He raises the bat; is he going to hit another child? Adults rush to intervene. Harry, the father of the other child, gets there first, and slaps Hugo. His parents are outraged, but others think he deserved it. The consequences of this incident reverberate throughout the rest of the book.
But whether or not it is always wrong to hit a child is only one of the issues. Tsiolkas has in his sights the whole experience of Australian suburbia by post war European migrants, their children and grandchildren, and other ethnic minorities who have arrived since, or been here all the time. In particular, it is the ‘bonds and fractures of family’, and of friendship, that interest him. He investigates this by devoting a chapter each to eight of the people who were at the barbeque – Hector and Aisha, Anouk, a single friend of Aisha’s, Rosie, another friend and mother of Hugo, Harry, who is Hector’s cousin, Manolis, Hector’s father, and two teenagers, Connie and Ritchie. The consequences of the slap affect all of these to a greater or lesser degree, but each has their own story. There is a linear narrative in the sense that the action takes place over about six months, but the structure of the book is more like the spokes of a wheel which radiate out from the initial grouping at the barbeque. The stories are of course not discrete; what happens to Rosie, for example, becomes clear through the stories of both Aisha and Ritchie, to Harry through Rosie’s story and to Hector through Aisha’s story.
None of the stories is entirely happy; in this, Tsiolkas is no doubt being true to life. I found the stories of Hector and Harry to be the most confronting, partly because of their infidelities and drug use, but more so because they both – Harry especially – seem so utterly self-regarding. Most of the men in the story seem to be angry much of the time, or disappointed – with their children, their wives or the lack of respect shown them by the younger generation. Tsiolkas recommends George Megalogenis’s book The Longest Decade (2006) for an understanding of some of the sources of this anger. The young people are also into sex and drugs, but I didn’t find this so hard to deal with, possibly because it is more of a commonplace these days. And the two teenagers do make the most generous gestures in the whole book. Overall, it is not a comfortable or comforting picture of suburbia that emerges.
I found it impossible not to make strong judgements about the behaviour of the characters. Tsiolkas gives both sides of many of the arguments, particularly the one about slapping a misbehaving child, and the structure of the book is well set up to accommodate this. And often there are no right answers in the tangle of jealousy and dislike, love and betrayal found in families and friendships. I was a bit surprised, though, that with the author’s apparent approval, one of the ‘best days’ in Ritchie’s life was the first day he shot up drugs. Tsiolkas seems to get a bit of a kick out of being a bad boy himself.
Does the non-linear structure work? Are the characters more than sociological exhibits? The Slap was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, but didn’t make it any further, so perhaps the judges had their doubts. However it won the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (S E Asia and Pacific) for 2009. It is now being made into a mini series, and should make fascinating viewing.