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5th April
2010
written by Steph

A cracking good read

I first heard about this book over at Farm Lane Books, back when it had first won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.  It isn’t a book that I necessarily would have been drawn to on my own, but Jackie’s review of this controversial (due to its content) novel, certainly piqued my interest.  So, when I saw an ARC pop up at BookPage that no one else wanted, I nabbed it and dove right in. The Slap follows several families based in Melbourne, Australia, who come together for a barbecue.  At this gathering, one of the adults slaps a young child who is acting out, but this causes a huge kerfuffle because it is not his own child he has physically reprimanded.  The resulting chapters take us through the chaos that ensues over the subsequent weeks, which we witness through the eyes of various characters.  We aren’t just privy to the direct fall out of the slap itself and how that issue is resolved, but also the various ways in which the characters' lives are disturbed, in some senses irretrievably. Given that this novel ostensibly centers around the concept of parenting and corporal punishment of children, it’s perhaps not surprising to discover that this is a very incendiary and combative novel.  The issue of whether it is or is not appropriate to shape behavior through spankings is one that’s very divisive and almost everyone has a strong opinion on the issue, regardless of whether they have children or not.  And then, even if you happen to be pro-spanking (and I will say for the record that I was spanked as a child, and don’t resent my parents for it), it becomes a completely different kettle of fish when you consider a non-parental figure disciplining a child.  There is a fiercely protective instinct within parents and I know many people would not tolerate others’ attempts to control their children, even in a non-physical fashion. Still, I wasn’t fully prepared for the grittiness of this novel.  There isn’t just the issue of spanking here, but The Slap also looks at issues of being a parent (or not), spousal abuse, extra-marital affairs, alcoholism, racism, classism, and there is also flagrant drug use throughout.  I was actually kind of shocked by the seedy picture of Australia that Tsiolkas painted for me – regardless of money and social standing, I was shocked to read about so many adults (some successful, some less so) who so casually took drugs and had such a narrow view of the world.  Reading The Slap, I certainly got the impression that even for those with a lot of money, life in Australia is quite hardscrabble and one where racism still runs rampant.  Far from glorification, I felt like Tsiolkas presented a rather sobering, and at times unsettlingly realist portrait of his country. That isn’t to say that this is fiction parading as non-fiction.  There is much about the novel that feels melodramatic, and almost like one is reading a soap opera.  Still, I thought there was a good balance of character-motivated plot and bigger ideas such as cross-cultural assimilation, balancing parenting with adult relationships (both marital and otherwise), fidelity, and of course the best way to raise children.  It’s an ambitious novel, and I think that Tsiolkas does a good job of tackling big issues without being reductive about any of them. No matter who you are as a reader, this book is guaranteed to provoke intense responses from you.  I found that I liked very few characters in the book – in fact, I may not have liked any of them! – but I was invested right from the start to find out what would happen to all of them.  I wanted to know how the issue of the slap would be resolved, and found myself siding with various characters at different points in the novel. I thought the writing was strong and clear, undeniably Australian.  It has plenty of slang, but not in a way that I found distracting.  The only complaint I might have with the language is that I found almost all of the characters sounded the same, regardless of their background, and almost all of the people Tsiolkas writes about wind up coming across as extremely mean and angry.  And yet, even with a common emotion, I think there can still be diversity, which I would have liked to have seen more of.  There’s also a good deal of strong language, and yes, that means lots of cussing, so if you like dainty prose in your books, you’ll want to avoid this one, because there’s hardly a bad word that Tsiolkas doesn’t use at some point. Overall, I really enjoyed this novel, and found it really engrossing.  I pretty much tore through its 500+ pages in just over two days, because it was a book that I happily read for hours on end. The pages turned quickly, the pacing was fast, and Tsiolkas gives readers tons to chew on and talk about.  If you are a reader who doesn’t mind taking a glimpse into the darker parts of life, then this is a book you won’t want to miss. Rating: 4 out of 5

14 Comments

  1. I’m really pleased that you decided to read this book. I found I was most shocked by the graphic ‘manliness’ of this book. The swearing, masturbation and insight into the thinking of men was eye opening for me. I agree that the characters tended to sound similar, but I didn’t mind as I was so absorbed by the plot. I’m hoping this makes it onto the Booker short list this year – I’d love to see the contraversial discussion that would create!

  2. 04/05/2010

    I can tell this is definitely not the book for me, especially if it’s riddled with drug use. But the pro/anti-spanking issue is an interesting one. I don’t consider slapping a child to be spanking, though. Slapping is a whole different thing. I’m the sort of parent who only uses spanking when nothing else can be done, so it’s rare but it does happen, but I would never, ever slap my children. The closest to that is when they were little and they would do something extremely dangerous with their hands (try to stick fingers in the electric sockets, grabbing knives off the table, etc), I would give them a small pop on the back of their hand. It was meant to be a reinforcing reminder that what they were doing was dangerous, not really a punishment.

    And though sometimes I WISH I could discipline other parents’ children, I refrain…

  3. i can’t imagine the outrage i would feel if someone touched my child–and i don’t even have kids! if someone put a hand on my nephew, he or she would rue the day.

    this novel sounds so intriguing and emotionally charged and your review is top-notch. it seems to cover a lot of ground and topics, too.

  4. 04/05/2010

    This does sound like a fascinating book! The idea of plotting a book around an unconventional spanking at first seems a bit weird, but the way that you explain the story and the repercussions of the slap sounds very interesting. I also had no idea that there was such seediness going on in modern day Australia, and think that that aspect of the book also interests me a little. Very cool review! I might not have ever heard of this book before, but now it’s right at the top of my wish list! You have a great gift for persuasion in your reviews!

  5. 04/06/2010

    @ Jackie: If not for you, I’m sure I wouldn’t have looked twice at this book, so thanks again for highlighting it on your blog. You’re right that this is a very masculine, testosterone-fueled narrative, even the parts featuring the women, I think. Perhaps that contributed to the element of violence I sense throughout the entire thing…
     
    @ Amanda: You’re right that the notion of slapping and spanking a child are two separate things, and I think that’s what adds to the heightened emotions in this book. The slap is in the context of a punishment like a spanking would be, but it’s definitely a slap.
    And yes, I think that spanking is really a last ditch resort to control a child. Certainly my parents didn’t go about whipping me willy-nilly, but rather when I was really acting out and they wanted to enforce the gravity of the situation. I think that’s the only context in which spanking could ever be effective. And of course, slapping a child’s hand to prevent its coming in contact with something dangerous is very different from slapping a child’s face (which is what happens in this novel)!
     
    @ nat: Your outrage is exactly why I think this book is so effective. As much as we might not agree with other parents’ means of disciplining their child, it’s a very different story when they appear to trespass on our own territory as care-givers and use their own methods against our own children. Even those who are pro-spanking feel uncomfortable at the idea of someone else hitting their child. I think the fact that Tsiolkas was able to see this and tap into it, and then use it as a catalyst for examining so many different relationships is fantastic!
     
    @ zibilee: Yes, the spanking is really just a catalyst for many other destructive things that come to pass in this book. It certainly shows up in each section, but it’s what it triggers that is ultimately more interesting. And it was certainly eye-opening to read about Tsiolkas’s Australia, which was far from romanticized. I think you’d really enjoy this one!

  6. 04/05/2010

    A friend of mine read this book for her book club and said it was excellent plus it incited so much discussion. I’ve been trying to find it but they don’t have it at my local book shops. Your review makes me want to read it even more.

  7. 04/05/2010

    I put this on my list after seeing Kimbofo’s review at Reading Matters a few weeks ago, and I’m glad to see you liked it too. I may not get to it for years, but it’s staying on the list!

  8. 04/05/2010

    Sounds like a thought provoking read. I’m amazed at how much mileage the author was able to get out of a simple act like slapping a child but I like the premise of that slap having a domino effect. I am intrigued and will add it to my list to explore in the future.

  9. 04/06/2010

    Glad to see that you have dived into an Australian book for this year and enjoyed it Steph (although ‘enjoyed’ sounds like it might not be quite the right word for this one??). I still haven’t read this one even though I have heard so many great things about it – I’m not sure what it stopping me – perhaps that element of realism that I am trying to escape in my enjoyment reading at the moment.

  10. 04/06/2010

    @ Mrs. B: This would be an excellent book club selection, I’m sure of it. I can only imagine how heated and passionate discussion would get. It’s also why I think it’ll eventually become a favorite among bloggers as well!
     
    @ Teresa: This is by no means the greatest novel I’ve ever read, but I appreciated how it was able to both entertain and prompt personal debate in me as a reader. I found it really engaging and absorbing, so I’m glad I got the opportunity to read it.
     
    @ Kathleen: I think the fact that the slap has a domino effect is what really elevates the novel above something that might simply be fishing for shock value. I mean there are plenty of shocking things that happen this novel, so that BBQ slap is really just the tip of the iceberg!
     
    @ Karen: I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to finally read an Aussie author this year! And it was such a rewarding read, so at least it was a great way to kick things off. I think it would be really interesting to get an Australian’s perspective on this book, because certainly your view of how your country is portrayed would be really edifying!

  11. 04/15/2010

    As an Australian of the same vintage as Tsolkias, I really enjoyed this book when I read it earlier this year. Yes, the language is brash, yes, the characters in it are angry and unlikeable, but my goodness I couldn’t put this book down. Someone described it to me as being like “Neighbours on acid” (Neighbours being a very sanitised soap opera based in Melbourne) and I think that is the perfect description. It’s very soap opera-ish and over-the-top. But do remember it’s revolves around a Greek immigrant family, so it’s not describing the quintessential Australian experience… it is but a mere glimpse of one section of society, really. Glad to hear you enjoyed it though.

  12. mee
    04/15/2010

    I’ve just read this too recently. I’m not sure if I like the Australian life portrayed in the novel to be the base of how the foreigners view us. It’s part of the whole yes, a subculture, and I liked that I got the insight into the different lives here.

    I agree that the characters sound somewhat similar. I think the fact that Tsiolkas is gay attributes to that. His female characters are less convincing than his male. Or to be exact, I didn’t really buy the sex scenes between the male and female characters…

  13. 04/16/2010

    @ kimbofo: Thanks for commenting! Like you, as much as there were elements of this book that I found repulsive, I also found the book really compelling and read it quickly. And even though Neighbours doesn’t air over in North America, I’ve seen bits of it while I was over in Europe, and I do see the parallel. How interesting that one of the characters was a soap writer… I wonder if that was Tsiolkias, giving a nod to some inspiration?
    And, no I should have been clearer that this book doesn’t describe every Aussie’s experience or outlook – how could one book really do that for so many people? – but rather it highlighted a voice and a perspective I personally had never encountered in literature. I didn’t necessarily provide me with very positive feelings, but I appreciated the insight I had not previously had. But of course, you’re right that it is but one voice, one point of view.
     
    @ mee: I wouldn’t want to make blanket statements about Australia based solely on this novel (or really about any country based on any novel), but I do think it provided me with a glimpse into Australian culture (or at least a segment of the culture) that I had previously been ignorant about. I don’t think all Australians are like all the ones in this novel, as I do have some Aussie friends and they’re nothing like the people in this book. But I have to believe that Tsiolkas is describing people who do exist, and of course not just in Australia, but the whole world over.
    And I had no idea that Tsiolkas was gay! I never would have guessed it based on this book, perhaps because of how testosterone-driven the book is and obsessed with heterosexual relations.

  14. Really pleased you enjoyed the novel, I have to admit I didn’t get as much pleasure from it (http://tinyurl.com/6azptfg). However, it has definitely sparked debate and that has got to be a good thing!

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