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.

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Reviews of The Slap on Amazon (UK)
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