The Book Club
The Slap - "A suburban BBQ, a man slaps a child not his own."
This week I attempted to read "The Slap" by Christos Tsiolkas. I say attempted because I did not finish it - and I will get to why.
This book is written by an Australian author, it is set in Melbourne, it has won an impressive amount of awards including Overall Best Book the Commonwealth Writers Prize 2009 and ABA Book of the Year 2009. It has been described as a "remarkably honest look at modern family life in Australia".
Given its list of commendations and recommendations I was expecting a can't-put-it-down literary masterpiece. After having read three quarters of the book (and watching the TV series as well) I have only one question. Whose family is Christos Tsiolkas basing his story on? Because it certainly is not mine, nor anyone I know.
For those who have not read the novel or seen the TV series, here is the story in a nutshell. Hector is having a birthday, he and his Indian wife have invited a number of friends and family to their home for a BBQ to celebrate. Among the guests are Hectors' overwhelming and outrageous Greek parents as well as his cousin Harry (along with Harry's wife and child), Bilal - an Aboriginal man who has converted to Islam, Connie - a 17-year-old high school student who is an assistant at the vet clinic that Hectors' wife owns and also babysits the children in the story, Anouk - who has brought her much younger lover with her and Rosie, her husband Gary and their 4-year-old son Hugo.
The BBQ progresses and culminates in a cricket match in the backyard. Hugo and the other children have a dispute over the rules of the game. Hugo starts swinging the cricket bat at the other children in an attempt to hit them and maintain possession of the bat. Harry steps in when his own son is threatened. He eventually slaps 4-year-old Hugo across the face. What ensues is an assault charge and a court case over the "abuse" of a 4-year-old at the hands of a man not his father. The story is told from the point of view of eight people present at the BBQ, including Harry and Hugo's mother Rosie.
My first impression was what a deliciously controversial story this is going to be. What a fantastic cross section of multicultural lives. This will surely teach us something about those people that are our neighbours, as well as give us something to argue about!! I was wrong!! As each character tells his or her particular story it becomes evident that Tsiolkas is less interested in discussing issues faced by modern families and getting the reader to empathise with his characters, as he is in trying to shock the reader with every offensive trick he has.
I am not a prude by any means, I have had my own version of a misspent youth. Plus I come from a big family of police officers and nurses, so I am under no misconceptions about what happens behind closed doors. HOWEVER, reading this book made me feel dirty. I grew more and more offended reading it and eventually put it down.
Hector is a weak-willed man who admits that he took a job in the public office so that he would not have to work very hard. He doesn't like his children, particularly his son who he sees as being not quite manly enough and often uses the term "fat" when describing him. He knows that his wife, is a good woman who works hard to provide and care for her family, but this does not stop him from seducing 17-year-old Connie. He is also a user of illicit drugs and has no problem bringing them into the house full of children. And whilst I know that not every character in a story is meant to be liked, it doesn't stop there!!
Harry is a violent man who drinks a lot and also uses drugs. He not only slapped the face of a 4-year-old child, but is abusive to his own wife. He is another man that openly admits that his wife is the best thing that ever happened to him. She is his queen and he would not be able to live without her. But this does not stop him from keeping a mistress in a flat in another part of Melbourne. He uses drugs with this woman (who has children, although it is not stated outright if they are his or not), and refers to her as his "dirty little leb chick".
Anouk is a soap writer in her forties who is dating an actor from her show, he is in his twenties. Anouk does not think that Harry has done the wrong thing by slapping Hugo. She believes that had Hugo's parents been doing their job and disciplining the child it never would have happened. She gets pregnant to her lover and decides that she is too old, too set in her ways, has too much she still wants to achieve and is too selfish to have a child. She terminates the pregnancy without the knowledge of her partner. Anouk could have been the perfect voice for Tsiolkas to argue in Harry's defence, but he does not follow through with any of her arguments, preferring instead to follow the termination of the pregnancy story - again trying to shock the reader.
Hector's parents seem to hate each other, Gary is an alcoholic, Hugo is spoiled and unruly, Connie - with her adolescent mind and body being manipulated by Hector - offers herself to him. He draws the line at actual intercourse, so she tells her friend that he raped her, Rosie is a hippie who drinks too much wine and then breastfeeds her 4-year-old. Again the character of Rosie should have been a voice for women who are standing up for their children, but it seems to fall down flat as other story lines come into play. In fact there is not one positive character in "The Slap". There is not one character that I was able to say represented someone I knew (or wanted to know).
With all of the cultural differences involved in the story, I thought that there would be the opportunity for the author to express a little of what immigrants have to go through. A little more, that is, then the offensive terms and put downs ("..bloody Aussies like the drink to much, they are all a bunch of f*ckin alcoholics. Not like us wogs" is a classic example of what is littered throughout the book. Along with terms like wog, skippy, coloured and boong). I felt this was not really important for the development of the story, but more a situation where these phrases are used gratuitously by someone who is trying to see how far he can push the envelope.
Bilal is described as an Aboriginal who used to drink heavily and get into bar fights. He gave up drinking to convert to the Muslim faith. This is the only character where Tsiolkas touches on the difficulties of being someone who is not a white Christian in Australian suburbs. Bilal faces suspicion because he is an Aboriginal man and then again because he is a Muslim who does not drink (gasp). He has a conversation with Rosie where he says "You make me think of a time when I was not a good man. You are not a good person and I don't want you dragging down my family". He is the only character I found myself warming to, the only one who I thought had any depth - and he wasn't even a main character!
So running the risk of sounding like a right-wing conservative, I thought the book was offensive. I felt that it misrepresented Australians - both native and immigrant - making us out to be a bunch of drug-using, alcohol-swilling, adulterous pigs with no respect for each other or ourselves. It is my opinion that every opportunity to write a good story and develop an interesting character (whether it be a likeable one or not) was missed in favour of trying to be controversial. I also feel that the whole "selling point" of the story - which was the slap - was left by the wayside and buried under mounds of irrelevant rubbish.
I could say here and now "I don't believe that smacking (smacking NOT beating) your child is a bad thing - but if anyone ever hit my child (at all, in any way, ever), I would unleash hell" and I would have enough fodder from readers' comments to fill a book without worrying about drugs, alcohol, racism, abortion and adultery.
Have you read it? What did you think? Do you think this book represents "a cross section of modern families in suburban Australia"? Do you think Hugo deserved the slap in the first place - and deserving or not, was it Harry's place to do so (even if he was protecting his own child)?
Don't forget our Book for April is "Tuesdays with Morrie". I hope you have a copy and have read (or re-read) this amazing story.
Until next week, Happy Reading.