Review “The Slap” by Christos Tsiolkas
I bought this novel The Slap by acclaimed Australian author Christos Tsiolkas late last year as a birthday present to myself. I had heard so much comment about the novel that I wanted to read it. It was also short listed for the 2009 Miles Franklin Literary Award and was winner of the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, two more reasons for wanting to read it. There had been considerable media hype since its publication.
I resisted reading it for some weeks, keeping it on hold until our beach holiday just before Christmas. In the few days before starting to read it, I read Tim Winton’s The Turning. I reviewed that book yesterday. I thoroughly enjoyed Winton’s collection of stories set in Western Australia and picked up The Slap with enthusiasm. I was enjoying a prolonged holiday of reading, and, at almost 500 pages, this was a work I could really lose myself in over the holiday break.
From the first page I was not only disappointed, I was furious, revolted, disgusted and appalled – sometimes all at the same time.
The premise is brilliant: a group of people living in Melbourne gather for a backyard barbecue. All is going well until one of the younger children behaves abominably and one of the adults slaps him. Trouble is – the adult is not his father. The novel is in eight parts, each told from a different person’s point of view of the same incident. Each section covers the life of the person relating the incident, the events before and after “the slap” and their reactions to the event. It affects each in various ways, and for many different reasons.
In my opinion, the only other strength of this book is the characterisation. Tsiolkas has drawn eight major characters (as well as a few minor characters) brilliantly. By the end of each section you feel that you really know the person thoroughly. In fact, you could meet any one of them at a barbecue or at the pub this weekend.
From the very first page Tsiolkas sets out to shock the reader. There is frequent very coarse language, something I find very objectionable. It is also unnecessary. If it is in character, and used for the purpose of shocking the reader, then it may have a place, used occasionally. After the first two or three pages of this novel, it no longer shocks; IT IS VERY IRRITATING. And very poor writing. Couldn’t the writer think of another word?
I find the same thing in many movies and television shows these days. Otherwise brilliant films like Four Weddings and a Funeral are very much the poorer for all the coarse language. Writers: if you want to shock the viewer do it very sparingly, otherwise it no longer shocks. It is just lazy writing!
Two major themes of the novel relate to drugs and sex. It would seem to anyone from another city or country, on reading this novel, would conclude that everyone living in Melbourne is either regularly out of their brains on drugs, or out of their pants in yet another bizarre sexual activity – or both! Sure, this probably reflects the lifestyle of about 0.1% of Melbourne’s population, most of them crammed into the characters in this novel. It occurred to me that whenever the plot was wandering, or getting weak, Tsiolkas would decide to throw in more about drugs or sex. In sections it borders on the pornographic. Again, lazy writing in my opinion. This book reads like a set of interesting, well written characters in search of a good plot!
This novel has been praised for the quality of the writing. It has won awards and prizes. It has sold many copies and done very well for the author.
I have read many reviews of this novel, many of them praising the book and placing it on a very high pedestal indeed, saying, in effect, there should be more high quality writing like this in Australian literature.
Such reviewers wouldn’t know good literature if it bit them on the nose. If this is indicative of the fine level of Australian literature, it is a major concern. Thank goodness we have the likes of Tim Winton who writes brilliantly. I look forward to reading more of his works. I’m sure I’ll never read anything else by Tsiolkas.
Offer: Anyone want to buy a ‘read-only-once-and-never-again’ book?