By Brigitte Weeks
Tuesday, April 27, 2010; C02
By Christos Tsiolkas
Penguin. 482 pp. Paperback, $15
"The Slap" introduces us to middle-class suburbanites in Melbourne, Australia, struggling with too little money and too much alcohol. At a neighborhood barbecue, 4-year-old Hugo throws a tantrum, kicks a bad-tempered man named Harry in the shins and receives in response a hard slap that "seemed to echo. It cracked the twilight."
The scene is set. Hugo's parents call the police and decide to sue Harry for child abuse and assault. But Hugo's mother finds herself under pressure from her closest friends to back down and make peace. A friend can't understand the furor over disciplining an obnoxious little boy. "Hugo is a basketcase," she says. "What happened on Saturday was a good thing." Other friends line up on opposing sides, some even refusing to socialize with Harry. One claims, "He did something unforgivable to my friend and her son."
As this morass of hurt feelings deepens, racial prejudice against "wogs" and "bogans" (immigrants, aborigines and the working class) rises to the surface. The focus switches from one character to another in the eight sections of the novel. It's a potentially confusing structure, but Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas is a master of seamless joints.
While all these different characters are establishing themselves as people we know more about than perhaps we care to, Tsiolkas navigates through his story with uncanny skill. One minute he's an aging Greek grandfather; the next he's an adolescent taking an overdose; he is young and old, man and woman, drunk and sober. He gets so close to his characters that the reader almost pleads with him to treat them more kindly.
"The Slap" paints a grim picture of Australian society but with a kind of bleak honesty that invites trust. The central characters spend a great deal of time drinking "stubbies" (short beer bottles) and fighting with their spouses. "Australezi, what do you expect? It's in their blood," complains one of the immigrant mothers.
"Discomfort is sometimes what is most precious to me about great art," Tsiolkas recently told an interviewer. Using that criterion, we could call this great art, and in many ways it is. Domestic sniping and drunken quarrels are not the stuff of epics, but Tsiolkas makes his readers take notice and care. Redemption is always around the corner.
A veterinarian who was at the disastrous barbecue is especially clear-sighted and self-aware. She evaluates both her one-night lover and her husband with cool dispassion, setting commitment above romance: "This, finally, was love," she realizes as she faces her husband across a restaurant table. "This was its shape and essence, once the lust and ecstasy and danger and adventure had gone. Love, at its core, was negotiation."
Tsiolkas is a hard-edged, powerful writer, but glowing at the heart of all the anger among these feuding families are sparks of understanding, resignation and even love. Not surprisingly, "The Slap," Tsiolkas's fourth novel, has won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, the Australian Literary Society Gold Medal and been published to enthusiastic reviews in Australia and the United Kingdom.
In "The Slap" we live for a few short weeks in suburban Australia, learning the language, becoming intimate with the characters and experiencing their customs. But finally the novel transcends both suburban Melbourne and the Australian continent, leaving us exhausted but gasping with admiration.
Weeks is a former editor of Book World.