Last year, it seemed as if you couldn’t step onto a train in Melbourne without seeing the familiar, grassy cover of Christos Tsiolkas’ novel The Slap held twelve inches away from the face of one of the many unfortunate patrons of the city’s creaking transport network. Every time I got up to fight my way to the doors in time to get off at the next station, I had to bob and weave through forests of paperbacks emblazoned with Tsiolkas’ name in large white letters. Nominated for the Miles Franklin Award, Australia’s equivalent of the Booker or Pulitzer prizes (but beaten by Tim Winton’s Breath), this story of the consequences of a back-garden barbecue was, for a brief time, more prevalent than Twilight (sadly, as they always do, the vampires later made a big comeback on the trains).
Having picked up Dead Europe and Loaded at the library earlier this year, I was even keener to see for myself what all the fuss was about, and, luckily enough, last time I was dragged to the library by my elder daughter, Emily (in the thirty seconds I was permitted to look for adult books in between the searches in the children’s section for such wonders as Topsy and Tim go to the Zoo and the latest Charlie and Lola delight), I noticed the iconic cover featuring an anguished child’s face on a background of a lawn. Brilliant. And I even had my library card with me this time.
So it gives me no pleasure to say that I felt ever-so-slightly let down after reading it. Now, I’m not saying that it’s a bad book, not by any means. It’s a good read, particularly for anyone living in Melbourne (which probably explains the hundreds of copies on the 8.01 city loop service); it’s just a little disappointing and uneven, and I walked away from the book without really getting what the author wanted to say.
The premise of The Slap is very simple. A group of friends and family gather at the house of Hector, a Greek Australian family man in his early forties, to celebrate summer in the way most Australians do, namely by throwing huge chunks of meat onto a barbecue, burning them, eating them and washing them down with copious amounts of alcohol. Somewhere between the cooking and the drinking, however, Hector’s cousin, Harry, sees Hugo, the obnoxious three-year-old son of Hector’s wife’s friends, threatening to bash his son with a cricket bat. So he slaps him – hard, across the face… The consequences, both direct and unforeseen of this event, affect all of the people at the barbecue, straining and breaking ties of loyalty, pushing some people together and ripping others apart for ever.
Tsiolkas tells the story through the eyes of eight of his characters, each one getting sixty pages or so to continue the narrative, and it is here that I feel The Slap falls down a little. As in his earlier novels, the writer dwells on the sleazy and negative side of the human persona with infidelity, violence and alcoholism rife. However, where Loaded and Dead Europe were taut, lean and intoxicating, The Slap is, like its mostly middle-aged protagonists, flabby and bitter, and not all of the sections work. The two Greek-Australian men, Hector and Harry, are suitably macho, attractive and repellent at the same time, but this is home territory for Tsiolkas. When he moves onto some of the female characters, the narrative falters, the voices become less credible, and the writing appears to get bogged down in descriptions of dresses and page-long digressions about appearance.
By the time the resolution of the main plot arrives, around two-thirds of the way through the story, I was starting to wonder what had happened and where the book would go from here. Luckily, Tsiolkas manages to pull the story through thanks to some of the stronger characters at the end of the novel. The section seen through the eyes of Manolis, Hector’s father, is wonderfully written, showing the sadness and sense of loss that come with old age – and also the sense of acceptance. The final part of the book which follows Richie, a gay teenager who is tangentially connected to many of the other characters, is one of the best, sensitively handled, showing the confusion and betrayal felt by the one character who does nothing wrong.
On finishing the book, I felt a little disappointed, but only because I had built the book up in my mind to be something it wasn’t. This wasn’t Loaded, amplified a hundred times: this was the story of the kind of people we saw in Loaded twenty years on, struggling with parenthood and a mortgage, but not averse to reverting to the behaviour of their glory days. As always with Tsiolkas though, I should also take a look at myself to understand my attitude towards this book and its inhabitants. Perhaps it’s not the fact that the characters are so damaged which taints my enjoyment of this book; perhaps I’m just too removed from the kind of life he describes to really appreciate it.
Whatever the reason, I liked this without loving it, and I think the good people at the Miles Franklin made the right choice in giving Winton his fourth award. However, don’t let me put you off The Slap. There aren’t that many Australian books that make it on the world stage, and anything which is set in Melbourne is very welcome indeed. My adopted hometown is a great place to live in and read about – were it not, of course, for the trains…