How would you react if you saw someone slap a 3-year old child?
Hector and Aisha, married with 2 children, host a barbeque at their house in the suburbs of Melbourne. Present are many of their friends and their children, and Hectors family. When his brash cousin Harry, annoyed when 3 year-old Hugo, son of Aisha’s friend Rosie, threatens Harry’s son Rocco with a cricket bat, Harry slaps Hugo. The barbeque quickly dissolves as attendees take sides and try to work out how to manage the situation. But the physical slap enacted in Chapter One is not the central part of this book. It is merely a devise to allow tensions between the characters to rise to the surface.
Gary, an unsuccessful artist who is frustrated working at a labourer’s job, and his wife Rosie have their day in court with Harry. Waiting outside the court, ready to go in and have their cases heard, are a cross-section of today’s society, a reflection of the people Tsiolkas writes about and the readers he is writing for. But the ruling is almost insignificant compared to the deeper feelings running throughout the novel. Rosie, whose life is dedicated to Hugo, is jealous of her schoolgirl friends, Aisha and Anouk and their life’s which are seemingly better than hers. No-one in this novel is happy with their lot. There is much resentment, regret and jealousy, and this is the Slap that Tsiolkas inflicts upon his readers – the grass is not always greener on the other side.
Each of the 8 chapters in the book are written from the perspective of one of the main characters. At almost 500 pages the book is overly long, and Connie’s (the teenage girl Hector is having an affair with) chapter is the longest, slowing the book down at its midpoint. The penultimate chapter, Aisha, most of it set in Bali, drags also. In contrast the third chapter, Harry, is full of bravado and life, albeit life that is deplorable. And the final chapter, Richie, Connie’s gay schoolmate, provides an enthralling and satisfying conclusion.
The most touching chapter is Manolis, Hector’s Greek father. Even though written in English, most of the language in this chapter is obviously spoken in Greek, as Manolis and his wife Koula, meet up with friends from their youth who they haven’t seen for a long time. Attending a funeral of a friend from his youth he contemplates humanity. This contemplation puts the problems of the other characters in the book into perspective, and helps to ground the book in reality.
Fortunately throughout Tsolkias remains firmly in the background, allowing his characters to play out their lives without interference. While his prose is well formed it’s not overdone and very accessible for the average reader. His dialogue and scenes read so well that the transition of the book into the 8-part ABC1 TV drama would seem almost inevitable.
This excellent novel is a must read for anyone interested in the dynamics of seemingly ordinary suburban life, from one of Australia’s best contemporary authors.