The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

06/06/10, The Sunday Telegraph

The Slap, which won its author, Christos Tsiolkas, the Commonwealth Writers’ Award for Best Novel last year, begins with one momentous incident – the slapping of an intensely annoying four-year-old brat at a barbecue in suburban Melbourne – and then spools out over nearly five-hundred pages to follow the lives of eight characters who were present at that barbecue, giving each of them a long chapter. The hosts at this barbecue are Hector, a devastatingly handsome Greek-Australian man, and Aisha, his stunning Indian wife. Hector works in the public sector while Aisha is a successful vet. Hector’s parents, Manoli and Koula, first-generation immigrants to Australia, are also present, as are two teenagers: Connie, who works as a part-time assistant at Aisha’s veterinary surgery and sometimes babysits Hugo, lost both her parents to AIDS and is being raised by her aunt; and Richie, her gay schoolmate who occasionally shares the babysitting with her. The slap is administered by Hector’s cousin, Harry, to Hugo, spoilt son of ex-hippy Rosie and her white trash alcoholic husband, Gary. Then there is Anouk, single, Jewish, forty-something, talented; Anouk, Aisha and Rosie’s friendship dates nearly thirty years back to their shared girlhood in Perth.

As the book burrows into the lives of these individuals, much in the manner of Altman’s Short Cuts, a pattern emerges of their intersections and the original spark of the novel’s dynamo, the slap, gets sidetracked – we reach the conclusion of the consequences of the act long before the end – to concentrate instead on the very soul of multicultural Australia in the twenty-first century. Far more important events, tensions, animosities, fissures and relationships unfold in this book, which could well be one of the most successful state-of-the-nation novels of our times.

A book of such wide scope and canvas cannot be without its flaws: the prose can be clunky in places, the frequent sex scenes are uniformly awful, some characters are more interesting and convincing than others, while the soap structure somewhat traduces the novel’s ambitions. But these are only murmurs against a genuinely important, edgy, urgent book that hunts big game. Nothing escapes Tsiolkas’s lacerating gaze: the casual racism that blights Australian culture; the fractures of an uneasily assimilated multicultural society; the contradictions and inconsistencies of liberalism; the crisis of masculinity. The novel keeps readers constantly on their toes, pushing boundaries, questioning lazy assumptions, provoking and, above all, smuggling in unease under the guileful blanket of a gripping read.