Review: The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

14 comments

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas book cover
The Slap (2008) is Christos Tsiolkas’s divisive novel about the use of corporal punishment to discipline children, and a scathing indictment of Melbourne’s middle classes and their failings. The titular event occurs in the first chapter when Hugo, a stroppy four-year-old, acts up at a suburban barbecue and Harry, one of the guests, takes discipline into his own hands, slapping Hugo across the face. Hugo’s new age parents are furious with Harry and the barbecue dissolves into bitter accusations. The subsequent chapters explore the slap’s consequences from the varying perspectives of eight kaleidoscopic characters who attended the barbecue, one chapter devoted to each.

From the novel’s promotion and blurb one expects a sensitive, bold, and insightful discussion about the disciplining of children in the modern, politically correct world. Sadly, there are really only two polarized views expressed: ‘it’s always wrong to hit a child’, and ‘the child needed disciplining – someone had to step in’, neither of which are explored in adequate depth. Instead the novel becomes a study of Melbourne’s emerging middle class; its uncomfortable multiculturalism, pretensions, prejudices, desires, and failings. The characters depicted cover a broad spectrum; Tsiolkas attempting to capture the truly cosmopolitan nature of Australia in the modern world, and exploring the underlying tensions between the different groups. Despite their varying cultural heritage the characters are, almost without exception, self-centred, judgemental, lascivious, conflicted, and humourless. Reflective of small sections of society though they may be, one lacks any empathy for such an infuriating ensemble, and quickly loses interest in their perspective. Equally, although one is presented with different character’s perspectives, their motivations and behavioural drivers are often unclear, or poorly explained.

The quality of the prose is variable, with simple grammatical mistakes and poorly constructed sentences affecting the novel’s fluency. Within the first few pages it becomes clear that Tsiolkas is writing provocatively, unnecessary foul language littering the work and graphic sexual scenes, which in no way propel the plot, occurring in nearly every chapter.

Although the novel is promoted as a controversial and thought-provoking work, the central event and the subsequent discussions around it fail to conjure any strong moral or intellectual conflict. Put simply, one is rarely challenged, a major failing from a POV novel that purports to deal with an important moral issue. The novel’s conclusion was particularly disappointing, with some characters’ behaviour feeling particularly affected and no final, cutting observation from the author on his characters or their behaviour and personal ideologies. Far from a piece of sharp social commentary, The Slap reads as a soap opera – its inclusion on the long/short-lists for various literary prizes belying this fact.

I’m about as far from a prude as it’s possible to be, but I found the constant use of bad language and the graphic description of superfluous sex vulgar and irritating. Beyond that my moral position on the issue was never really challenged, and there seemed very little dilemma for me. I was equally disappointed that the point-of-view style failed to explain the motivations of some of the key characters. Overall, a let-down.


Useful Links
Reviews of The Slap on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Slap on Amazon (US)

14 comments:

booketta said...

Thank you for your comment. I must admit, this does seem to be the general consensus from many reviewers, my book group and other bookish friends. I quite agree, however did it get onto these lists?

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thanks Booketta. I've read quite a few reviews that are very positive, but I really can't see it myself. Tsiolkas is an eloquent chap, and listening to him talk on various topics is interesting, but this was one big let-down.

Have you read any of his other books? I might give one a try, he certainly has the knack of sparking debate and writing provocatively.

louisebroadbentfiction said...

Great review, Matthew. You've covered a lot of important ground that I didn't really touch on, particularly how it stood up to reader expectations caused by the way this book was promoted.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thanks Louise. I find the promotion of books really interesting, and at times a little dis-heartening. I think the marketing push for The Slap was great - from a publisher's point of view. The book sold staggering amounts, but as a reader I was left feeling a little short-changed.

Steph said...

Excellent review! Very well articulated, and you mentioned several things I found myself, particularly about the characters.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thanks Steph, really pleased you enjoyed the review. And thanks for yours, it's always interesting to read other people's thoughts on a book.

Gypsy King said...

I enjoyed the book but I came to it not expecting anything much. It is crude and lacks subtlety but I did like some of the characters. In the end, it wasn't really about the slap, was it, but about the various foibles of the cast. It was promoted as something it really wasn't.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

I think I'd agree. And you're right, the promotion was a bit off. Still, that's not really the author's fault, so you can only judge the book on its own merits. I'm pleased you got something from it whatever the case.

Bonnie @ Bookish Ardour said...

What bothered me the most, more so than blatantly trying to shock readers, grammar issues, and failing to actually discuss disciplining children, was the stereotyping. What's meant to be a showcase of upper middle-class Melbournites doesn't come across, to me, as being anything more than one idea of a character, which expanded to more cardboard characters.

I don't live in Melbourne, but I know people who have and there's people I know who have friends living in that area who aren't like these people. At all. Granted I can understand what Tsiolkas is doing by telling a story with these particular characters, but if you're going to take a stereotype than it's probably best not to make it about a group of people in a real place.

Then again, maybe he did that in order to help readers dislike them even more.

Apparently the television show is pretty much a spot on adaptation to the book.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Hi Bonnie. I agree with you, the characters did all appear to have similar motivations and react in a similar way to stressful situations, regardless of background or experience.

This was particularly aggravating as the characters were from such a diverse set of backgrounds that one expected their reactions to vary significantly, thus creating a good basis for conflict.

On the other hand, I've read a few reviews from Melbournites who identified the characters as definite subsets of their own society, so maybe it's a matter of opinion.

Esha said...

Thank you for this review. I have thus far only come across reviews that describe this suburban soap opera as somehow emblematic of 21st century melburnian zeitgeist. the only redeeming qualities of the book for me were, first, Manolis contending with his mortality, and, second, the initial contrast between Rosie's and Harry's families, and how these differences could have informed the visceral reactions to "The Slap" - until the book just descended into cliched characterization. i could not relate to the melbourne it portrayed - i'm a first generation indian migrant with multicultural friends, brought up in melbourne. i found the sex boring at best and annoying at worst, the grammar mistakes a joke, a central moral focus to be lacking, and the cultural descriptions to be slack. the prose was terrible. it was a lazy, poorly edited book. it could have been some 200 pages shorter. the only thing that is blatantly obvious is that the author is greek, only knows greek culture intimately, which is portrayed in three of the vignettes, but he hasn't done enough research into any other. this, he should have done if he was attempting to portray the nuances of a multicultural melbourne. it didn't provide any cultural, moral or philosophical elucidation. perhaps it serves as some eye-opening moral question for those not exposed to different cultures, but for me it was banal. to be honest, however, the premise of this book had no appeal for me from the very beginning.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Thanks for a really interesting comment Esha, almost a mini-review in itself! I really liked Manolis as a character too, despite being supplementary to the plot his section was one of the least obnoxious in the book, and I'd far rather have read about his existential crisis than all the irritating whinging.

It's really interesting to hear from someone with a more intimate knowledge of the world Tsiolkas was attempting to portray. Sadly, a lot of the characters did seem to run into stereotypes, and I think you're right, Tsiolkas seemed most at home when writing about Greek culture.

I hope the book has stoked the debate about parenting and morals, but I can't help but feel it could have been done so in a much better way. Ah well, I hope your next read goes down a little better :)

Esha said...

Thanks for your reply, Matthew. I'm glad to have come across this website; your reviews are very thoughtfully written. I'm particularly excited that you read classics!

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

No problem at all Esha, I always try to reply - I love getting to know my readers and hearing their opinions.

I'm going to try and read more classics over the next few months, so it's good to hear their is an audience for it. I'm thinking Thomas Hardy next month.