The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas

2.5 stars2.5/5

The Slap was chosen by one of my colleagues at work for our book group at the end of last year.

Tuskar Rock, 2010 edition (paperback), 496 pages - book group.

It’s taken me a little while to write about it. Why? I suppose I felt a bit apathetic about it, which presumably is not the appropriate emotion considering that the book deals with the controversial subject of whether it is ever ok to hit a child.

The story mainly centres around an event that happens at a friendly barbecue and the fallout from it. A young child creates a scene and is aggressive towards another child. The situation becomes complicated when a grown man named Harry steps in and slaps the toddler. The barbecue breaks up amid horrified screams from the toddler’s mother and shock amongst the other adults.

The book is delivered as a series of excerpts written from the point of view from the various people who were at the barbecue. This is definitely a clever way of highlighting the different responses to the incident, and also making the reader question their initial response to events. For example – finding out that Harry has a history of beating his wife definitely made me feel less sympathetic towards his character.

Actually, reading most of the character’s extracts made me feel unsympathetic towards them. Even Aisha, who seemed quite an interesting woman, disappointed me by the end of the book. The bits of the book that were testosterone-fuelled (Hector and Harry’s expletive filled extracts) packed the most punch for me. I disliked Hector and Harry, but felt that their accounts were more authentic-sounding. Something about the female accounts just didn’t quite ring true for me, although it’s difficult to put my finger on why. Out of all the characters, Richie – a young man struggling to come to terms with his sexuality – was the most tenderly written and he was really the only person that I felt any empathy for by the end of the story.

There is a lot of crude language in The Slap and I was pretty shocked at how much casual racism there was but then I don’t think that either of these things were inappropriately employed by the author – they simply delivered a realistic view the way that people can be. The behaviour of the characters seemed very impulse-driven, be that sexual or physically violent. I found I disliked the characters but this was not what made me apathetic towards the book. I think it got off to a great start – I was hooked after the first incident had taken place, and Harry’s account was fascinating. However I found the middle to the end of the book quite slow to read. The accounts of Manolis (Harry & Hector’s father) bored the pants off me. Connie’s chapter was just too long.

I do think that The Slap raises many excellent discussion points around class, family and society’s mixed views towards smacking a child. One of the excellent points made at our book group discussion was about the definition of ‘the slap’ itself. Was it a slap around the face? A slap (smack) on the bottom? Does it matter? Does it make a difference that it was  a hulk of a man slapping the child and not one of the mothers?

One of the most successful aspects of the book for me was that Tsiolkas doesn’t prescribe an answer. The reader is left to make up their mind, and in my case I was left more baffled as to my own feelings than anything else. However I felt that the book fell down in the way that the female characters were written and tried to cover too much ground, which made the middle to end section of the book really drawn out and dare I say it… a little bit dull. That, added to the fact that I really detested most of the people in it mean that I didn’t really enjoy The Slap. A brilliant book for creating discussion, but flawed in the way those points were delivered.

The Slap is a book that provokes strong responses. Read more positive reviews from Farm Lane Books (“…the male version of ‘chick lit’…”) and Reading Matters (“…a very bold book…”).

Have you read The Slap? If you haven’t do you think its a book that you would enjoy?

21 responses to “The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas

  1. Hi! Enjoying your blog. I really liked The Slap because I thought it captured modern, multicultural Australia better than any other book that I’ve read, but I probably engaged with it more because I’m Australian. At the same time, I didn’t love it because, as you said, most of the characters are pretty unlikable. I didn’t think there was much ambiguity as to whether the titular slap was morally justified – the kid is portrayed as such a brat!

    • I did notice that Aussie readers seemed to enjoy it more – as you say, probably because it is a comment on society. Haha, the kid WAS a brat wasn’t he?! But then, at that age was it his fault or his parents?

  2. I keep hearing the characters are unlikable, hmmm. I really wanted to read this one but more and more I may not.

    • 🙂 Don’t be do put off. It is really interesting. Perhaps the thing is to read the first chapter to get a feel for it?

  3. This seems to be the general consensus among non-Australian readers – unlikeable characters but interesting premise. The premise still very much intrigues me, but I suspect a better take on the issue exists somewhere in the wide world of literature… I find it interesting, though, that the book was far more popular in its home Australia than it was elsewhere despite the good publicity and reasonable hype. Perhaps a cultural divide?

    • Possibly, or perhaps just more fascinating because it’s about the native society? For example, I suspect that the film Four Lions would me more interesting to Brits than to Aussies 🙂 ???

  4. I remember you commented on my review last November that you were reading this! I was even less positive than you, though – I thought Tsiolkas was really unsubtle, and all the characters were horrible and unsympathetic, so that a potentially really interesting topic was really wasted. And everyone took drugs and swore all the time! Not realistic, surely? Eurgh. But, annoyingly, I do think he’s a good writer – and if he learns to treat a topic better, could write a really good book.

    • Funny, it’s not so much the unpleasant people (although it didn’t help) it was just the SLOWWW-ness of the middle. Totally agree that he’s a good writer. Perhaps I was a bit critical because that frustrated me?

  5. I agree that all the characters were horrible, but I enjoyed reading about them. I thought it was a great discussion starter and very well written. I can see why you wouldn’t like it, but I thought it was a fascinating insight into the male mind 🙂

    • Agree, totally that it was well written and definitely a discussion starter. A brilliant book group book 🙂 I do think it was insightful to the male mind, although if anything I sort of felt it was most insightful to Richie’s – who was one of the less butch cases!

    • Good grief, I hope it’s not any particularly accurate reflection of any male mind I’ve encountered!

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  7. I will probably read this book first thing next month. I was going to suggest it to my book club, but as they are mostly women I don’t think I will now. Doesn’t sound like they would like it. But it does sound like I would.

    • Hmmm…. I wouldn’t let it put you off too much as a book group choice unless you think your members are sensitive. It’s a great discussion starter, and you know what… could create an interesting storm amongst mums if there are any at your group 😉 (evil cackle…)

  8. Did you know they are currently making a TV series about the book? It’s got a great cast. Melissa George playing Rosie, Jonathan LaPaglia as Hector, Sophie Okenado as Aisha. I’ve been following it as they shoot on facebook where the are uploading behind the scenes videos etc. It’s pretty cool seeing it come to life. If anyone is interested the link is:

  9. Funny that I found Manolis part was one of the most interesting. Connie’s part bored the pants off me. Harry and Hector parts were painful to read. The language is just too much. Anyway I guess the book is a bit uneven. I would’ve liked it to delve more into the slap itself.

  10. I think this is definitely a Marmite book, Polly — you either love or hate it.

    As you know I really enjoyed this one, perhaps because it captured a side of middle-class Melbourne that you never read about in fiction. In the past I have worked with and lived alongside these very kinds of people — they do exist. But I think they exist in every culture.

    I saw an interview with Tsiolkas on the Review show last year, and the woman interviewing him — comedian Shappi Khorsandi — kept banging on about the racist language and he’s like “what? there’s no racist language in this book” and then I joined the dots… there are terms in this book which are racist to British ears but aren’t racist to Australian ears. That’s because immigrants took back those words (I’m thinking of the word “wog”) and made them their own. So I suspect there might be a few things in “The Slap” that just don’t translate outside of Australia, which may partly explain why so many non-Australians hate it… ?

  11. This book has divided a lot of people – my mother read it for her book club and found it unbearable, particularly the characters. However, two of my colleagues loved it. I wasn’t a big fan of the author’s short stories from a collection so I don’t think I’ll read this. I might turn on the TV series when it’s shown though.

  12. I think the reviewer may have missed the point of the book. I don’t think the issue of slapping a child was the main issue, i think it was more about the generation gap. The moment when the brat spits on the old man (old values) and is reprimanded by Richie sums up the core of the book.
    I am South African, but identified with every character in the book. I think those characters are fairly universal and although they are shocking, this is precisely what makes them so fascinating. All in all a brilliant book, deceptively good and his dialogue believable.

    • Thanks for your comment Sean, and the thoughts. I was well aware of the discussions around class, society and generational difference, and I am not put off at all by shocking books. However, part of reviewing is to give your own opinion and my opinion was that it was a good book, but that it was not for me. Just because I didn’t love the book doesn’t mean that I ‘missed the point’. Reading is pretty subjective and The Slap is certainly a book that divides opinion!

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