Review: The Slap, Christos Tsiolkas

 This book is the Book Group Wannabe of all Book Group Wannabes.  The Slap even has on its cover the quote ‘one of the first truly great novels of the new millennium’.  I’ll say this for it, it put me in a bad mood for the whole afternoon after I finished it.  I do not believe the hype, it’s a very angry book and the sex scenes are frequent and … unpleasant.  Nevertheless, I do think that this book has tried very bravely to tackle The State of Our Society in a non-judgemental way and for that reason it did deserve the Booker Prize nod despite the quality of the writing being a bit uneven in patches.  Still, I did not like The Slap, but I have a feeling I was not supposed to.

The Slap occurs when Hector and Aisha throw a barbecue.  Among the attendees are Harry, Hector’s cousin and Rosie, Aisha’s best friend.  Rosie’s 3 year-old child Hugo behaves atrociously (and continues to be so for the whole novel), eventually the bad behaviour escalates and Harry slaps him.  Rosie and her alcoholic husband pursue assault charges.  The fallout from this tiny incident is huge and completely plausible.  Without it seeming too clunky, Tsiolkas manages to comprise a pretty complete cross-section of society in his characters, including Muslims and Jewish, a lot of Greek-Australians, the elderly, a few teenagers and several other different races including Indian and Aborigine.

The Slap is set in Australia which is interesting because culturally Australia is a wee bit peculiar.  A country whose most famous son is Ned Kelly, whose unofficial national anthem is Waltzing Matilda and where a fair majority of the residents are descended from convicts naturally leads to an interesting national identity.  The Aborigines are marginalised, the white settlers are generally mocked and the more recent immigrants are subjected to casual racism.  And I say all this as someone who was born in Australia and a fair amount of my family hail from there.  For those who do not know Australia (and I am a mere hobby Australian), white trash in Australia are generally referred to as Bogans.  Rosie and Gary fit in the Bogan box, which is very unfair particularly on Rosie who I started out hating (or rather strongly disliking since it is impossible to hate a person … although whether Christian rules apply to the fictional world I am not sure).

The Slap is trying to have a big debate about violence and children and families and Tsiolkas does set this up very well.  The titular slap occurs towards the beginning and I was at that point in sympathy with Harry because Hugo was behaving appallingly and was not being discipline at all by his parents, things had escalated to a point where Hugo posed a danger to others.  Something had to be done.  However, Harry himself is a loathsome human being and this only becomes more obvious as the novel wears on.  Rosie on the other hand is incredibly, infuriatingly idiotic in the beginning but the more I read, the more sympathy I had for her.  It was her character that stayed with me at the end of the novel.  She was a good girl who had made some bad choices and she had ended up in the wrong life.  So Tsiolkas challenged readers’ expectations of their characters in the way in which he resolved his novel.  I say resolved … I still had questions although I’m not sure how much more of it I could have taken.

Violence against children is an emotive issue and this is where The Big Debate has come in.  For me, one thing should be very clear: I work with children regularly and I have never ever in my life raised my hand to a child, let alone one who had nothing to do with me.  However, I was smacked as a child, not overly but enough to get the message across and personally I don’t think it did me any harm and when I’ve seen parents smacking small children who have completely gone overboard, I have generally thought that it was appropriately done.  A child of Hugo’s age may not understand a rationally explained argument not to do something, but they understand a quick smack.  It’s for the same reason that whenever I’m working with a baby and they start pulling my hair, I always tell them very firmly that that’s naughty and they should be gentle.  Sooner or later, they will understand and I think that we fail children when we do not demonstrate cause and effect to them.  All that being said, if I had a child and a complete stranger smacked him, I’d be bloody furious.  Still wouldn’t go to court though.  

TV serial coming up on BBC4 … not sure I can face it.

It would be wrong to say though that the circumstances surrounding The Slap could not happen in the UK, the problem that The Slap is really addressing is not unique to Australia or America or any particular country but rather it is a global issue.  Society is becoming increasingly hysterical, particularly on the subject of children.  I’m not talking about violence towards them, I’m talking about five year olds knowing what paedophiles are, I’m talking about being told that I’m not supposed to put sun cream on children too small to be able to do it themselves.  I’m talking about when I work at after school club and one of the Reception children climb on to my lap for a story because they’re tired and they really belong at home at that time of night and I let them sit on because I think cuddles are important for wee ones but I know that I shouldn’t because I’m putting myself at risk.  When I worked in France, children would come and give me kisses because that’s a pretty standard French greeting and it’s a much healthier attitude in general.  I can’t help thinking that we are raising a pretty weird generation of children who are encouraged to think that any contact with an adult can have no benign origin.

Although Rosie embodies the worst of all this, I still didn’t like the way she was treated.  I’ve read another review of this which stated that she was the worst drawn character and that her back story failed to explain her motivations.  I did not agree with that at all.  Rosie had grown up in a middle class family, her father had lost all his money when she was a teenager and the family moved to a bad area and then she wound up marrying an alcoholic and never quite made it back to the middle classes which was really where she belonged.  Rosie was a Lost Girl aged 40, full of rage at how her life had treated her and feeling out of place everywhere she went.  Aisha and Anouk, her two best friends were both very successful but even with them, after a thirty year friendship, Rosie does not quite belong.  When they go out for drinks, Anouk hopes desperately Rosie won’t come and then the two of them decide where they’re going and in a patronising aside, tell Rosie they can treat her for a meal since they know she can’t afford it.  When Rosie tries to make a new friend, the friend’s husband tells her politely that he does not want her around his family.  It’s no wonder she unleashes so much rage at Harry, she’s sublimating a heck of a lot of frustration in her daily life.

In the other review I read, it mentioned that Rosie was over-compensating in her relationship with Hugo because she wanted to hide her sluttish past.  That just made me angry – Rosie made things bloody awkward for herself but for heaven’s sake, harking back to a promiscuous youth as reasons why she deserves what she gets is just more misogynistic crap which frankly this novel is already peppered with.  Harry refers to women as whores constantly and although Harry is an unsympathetic character, he is not alone in this attitude.  Hector is not much better – and I really did not understand the fuss about Hector, he was an immature man-child who never said or did anything interesting.  The women too seemed to accept that they deserved to be treated like whores, Aisha and Rosie both seem to accept sexual violence as their just punishment for bad behaviour which really, really bothered me.  

What I really took exception to was the breast-feeding thing – Hugo is still being nursed at 3.  Tsiolkas has Hugo wandering in and demanding ‘boobie’ every time he sees his mother as a sign of the unnatural family dynamic at play.  Yes, it is unusual to still nurse a child at that age but not unheard of and I certainly don’t think that it’s a sign of poor parenting.  The poor parenting is the bit where Hugo is being simultaneously spoilt and ignored, a pretty toxic combo that I have witnesses the results of and believe me, it doesn’t turn out happy well-adjusted children.  With everything that was going on, I just thought it was kind of weird that the breast-feeding was the thing people got freaked out by and can’t help feeling it was a bit lazy on Tsiolkas’ part.  

One thing that I thought was kind of funny was that while he was trying to judge modern society, Tsiolkas hadn’t quite had the courage to tackle Facebook and Smartphones so signposted very clearly through his pop-culture references that this story was set five years ago.  It’s fine, but I do wish that at some point authors would have the courage to write those in – the way humans relate to each other is changing because of these and for this novel to have been truly bold in the way it put all of this across, it would have been a good idea to acknowledge that.  

The Slap does deal honestly with the nature of the bonds of family, for although Rosie has been friends with Aisha for thirty years, Aisha’s first loyalty is to her husband’s family.  This is depressing yet true; we kid ourselves that friends are God’s apology for our families and that relationships are temporary but friends are for life but the sad fact is that we never quite get rid of our family yet friends can leave us shockingly easily.  In my own life, I was abandoned by my father pre-birth, got in touch with him 18 and we had quite a bumpy relationship due to his immaturity.  Yet, I have come to realise that no matter our differences, my father’s place in my family is non-negotiable.  I’m not saying that friendships have no value, far from it, friendships are the oxygen of my life but I recognise that they are vulnerable to family loyalty and once they’re gone, they’re gone.  Threads may  survive and a lingering good feeling for each other might re-emerge in time but no matter what our liberated 21st century sensibilities may tell us, at the end of the day families still come first.  R
osie is shocked when Hector’s father sides with his nephew rather than her and it struck me that Rosie’s main tragedy was how few people she had who would stand with her to that same degree of loyalty.  It’s funny that I tagged this as a family story but unlike others such as The Thirteenth Tale which deal with dysfunction on a Gothic scale, the drama contained within The Slap is all too credible.

So The Slap deals with a lot of issues particular to the Brave New World we live in; hysterical parenting, friendship vs. family, intergenerational conflict etc., etc.  This book troubled me in how little positive there was in the way these people related to each other.  On the cover of this book, beneath the title, is the statement ‘Whose side are you on?’  Bluntly, I was on Rosie’s, yes she behaved like an idiot at times but she was drowning in the misery and loneliness of her life and also no matter what Hugo had done, Harry had no right to lay his hands on him.  I deal with spoilt children on a depressingly regular basis and yet I manage to cope without violence so my sympathy for Harry is nil.  This is not one of the first great novels of the new millennium, I doubt it will last as a classic but it does raise interesting questions and it give me pause for thought, unlike many of the other book group wannabes I have read, this one actually deserves the discussion because it is a book about all of us and the way we are today.

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The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas
Published by Atlantic Books Ltd on May 1st 2010
Genres: Fiction, General
Pages: 123
ISBN: 9781848878600

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