Sunday 9 October 2011

The Slap

It's been quite a while since I read an adult book, and it's been a refreshing change. Even though this is quite an adult book. This was THE book of 2009. As perhaps the last person in Australia to read it, I finally succumbed to the pressure in the week leading up to the airing of the miniseries on TV. I naturally, wanted to watch it, but had to read the book first. Of course I'd left it so long that I was then forced to buy the TV tie-in copy instead of the proper cover. I hate that. I want to imagine the characters as I see them, not the actors playing it out on screen. And then I didn't finish in time to watch the first episode before I'd finished reading. Another quandry. In the end I decided to plow on and finish the book before I started with the mini-series. Interestingly this edition has three pages of "Praise for The Slap" at the front, and an extra two pages at the back. I don't know that it needs that for readership, but there it is.

This book literally was everywhere in 2009. It won the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction in the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards. It was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin (beaten by Tim Winton's Breath), and longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. They talked about it on the First Tuesday Book Club. On the Bookshow on Radio National (where the reviewer wonders if Tsiolkas has mellowed as The Slap isn't nearly as raw and confrontational as his previous works! WOW. They must be something. This is a great 5 minute audio review actually). And it was lauded and discussed in just about every paper, magazine and on every scrap of paper. 

Still, even though it's been so talked about I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Yes, everyone knows by now I'm sure that it involves a child who is slapped by a man, not his father, at a backyard barbeque in suburban Melbourne during the later years of John Howard's Australia. It is however, much more than that. The actual slap is quite near the beginning of the book, and the book is more about the year following the slap. The events the slap unleashes and the strains it puts on the rather complex relationships between the characters. Cleverly told in 8 sections, each narrated by a different character who was present at the barbeque and involved in the narrative in various ways. 

There are of course many more than 8 characters, and initially I found the first chapter a bit confusing. Who was related to who, where everyone fitted in. Much like when the hordes descend at a real barbie I guess. This soon sorted itself out. Perhaps the most shocking thing is the insight into each character's head. As many have said, the vast majority of the characters are flawed, and well, particularly obnoxious and rather awful. I felt very uncomfortable being inside their thoughts. They are vulgar and profane on many levels. Is this really what it's like in other people's heads? I hope not, because it's very, very awful. 

Tsiolkas does broach many subjects as well as the debate about whether anyone has the right to slap an obnoxious, awful child. He takes on private vs public schooling, Australian drinking culture, marriage, fidelity, the mores of the modern world, the role of the media. He even taught me a slang racial epithet that I didn't know that was used to depict Australians! (Skip). There is tenderness. I found Manolis' section particularly moving. And humour too.

Connie looked alarmed at that option. "I don't know anything about hats."

"It's the sad decline of civilisation. What can I say? It's okay. I don't wear them either now that I'm a hippie."
One passage that really stood out for me was when the court case is held. She here is Rosie, the mother of the child who is slapped.

When they finally entered the courtroom she  had to stifle her disappointment at how unimpressive it was. A lone Australian coat of arms sat above the judge's seat and already a stain of weak, lemon coloured damp was rising in a corner of the room. They took seats near the front and waited for the case to be heard. 

The pettiness of people's lives, the mundane sadness of what people did, mostly for money, sometimes for love or out of boredom, but mostly for the desperate need for money, is what Rosie took away from that day. Young men- just boys really, but already with long, tedious prior convictions read out by equally young, bored coppers in hesitant monotonous tones- faced the dock for stealing toys, stealing radios, stealing iPods, stealing televisions, stealing handbags, stealing work tools, stealing food, stealing liquor. There were young mothers ripping off the dole, young girls shoplifting trinkets and mascara and DVDs and CDs and Barbie dolls for their kids. 

I'm glad that I finally read got around to reading The Slap. It's very uncomfortable reading for much of it, but does have a lot to say about how we live now (which I have just realised is Helen Garner's blurb on the front cover). I hadn't read any of Tsiolkas's work before, and perhaps this was a good place to start. . I'll be interested to read more of it. And  now I have television series to look forward to. If I could get near a screen this weekend, what with Dr Who finales then a Series 6 marathon, car racing and endless games of World Cup Rugby, then I could watch the first episode. 


Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers said...

Well I hope you get to watch it Louise, I caught a little bit of the show last week and thought it seemed better, less confrontational, than than the book. You know you can watch it on iView if you miss it at its proper time slot?
You might be interested to read my review now that you've just read the book, it's the most visited ANZ LitLovers blog post I've ever written with over 3000 hits so far! See

bermudaonion said...

I've never heard of The Slap - I wonder if it ever made its way over here. I hate movie/TV tie-in covers too.

Louise said...

I did get to watch it finally tonight Lisa. It's hard when you've just read the book- you do too much comparison. "They didn't say that" "It wasn't like that". So I was actually a bit annoyed by the differences. And wow, it sure was toned down for TV. Thanks for the link to your review. It's a fantastic post. Interesting that it's your most visited one. I wonder if that will happen to me? My most visited one, is on Shaun Tan's The Lost Thing.

Louise said...

Kathy, I'm pretty sure the book would be available in the US. I do know some Americans who have read it.

Kath Lockett said...

Not being in Australia right now I've heard good things about the TV version. I hope it arrives here because it might change my mind about the book. I loved the idea of 'the slap' but hated his depiction of the characters - very unrealistic, unpleasant etc but I also got utterly sick of the raves it got from everyone. At the time you were almost made to feel un-Australian if you didn't love it...

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

Quite a shock to me, every time, reading a grownup book after reading scads of children's books.

In any case, I unexpectedly find I have The Slap on my wishlist, from months and months ago. Not sure if I want to read it; sounds like a Jonathan Franzen novel, big and mean, without a bit of compassion for his characters who've been forced to live these sad lives.

Louise said...

Kath, I sadly find it rather realistic, the characters at least seem real to me, although having so many unpleasant people all lumped together seems a bit rough. I hope you get to check out the show- the edges certainly have been smoothed off quite a bit.

I've only read one Franzen Debbie (The Corrections), this was a lot more urban and gritty than I remember The Corrections being. I'm not sure that it's the sort of book you'd like.

Brona said...

Mr Books has enjoyed this and Barracuda, but I've yet to read any of Tsiolkas. Somehow we missed the TV series completely.

FYI - my most visited post is my AusReading Month masterpost from 2014 followed closely by Tim Winton's Eyrie.