I was quite pleased when my book group decided to read The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas (could someone tell me how to pronounce this, by the way?) because I'd got a copy through Amazon Vine a while ago, and knew I needed an incentive to make my way through all 483 pages of it. That wasn't going to happen off my own bat. Or my own back. I can never remember which it is...
The idea seemed really interesting: at a barbecue, somebody slaps somebody else's child. We see the event and its aftermath from various different perspectives, and an interesting and complex moral question is woven into the fabric of life for a group of Australian young parents.
Or that was the idea.
What Tsiolkas has actually done is so much less subtle that I wanted to shake him. The ingredients for a fascinating novel are in place, and - I'll say it now, because this review might wander into negative territory - Tsiolkas is potentially a really good writer, but it is all wasted. Tsiolkas has gathered together the most loathsome characters imaginable, the most loathsome of the lot indisputably Harry, who is the one to slap Hugo. He is also a wife-beater, a druggie, and someone who despises everybody who is not himself. The chapter we see from his perspective left me feeling nauseous, he was so disgusting a human being. Which Tsiolkas recognises, I think, so it didn't worry me from that point of view - what ruined The Slap was that the slapper in question offered no sort of moral grey area. He enjoys being violent to others, and enjoyed hurting Hugo. Hugo was, at the time, threatening Harry's child - which could have been an interesting angle, especially if Harry were normally a mild-mannered man - but Tsiolkas sweeps this ambivalence away.
It's not just Harry that is horrible. His wife Sandi is; Hugo's parents Rosie and Gary are; the host of the party, Hector, is. In amongst an enormous cast of characters, only two of the central ones seemed at all likeable, especially Richie - more on him later. And - have I lived a terribly sheltered life? - EVERY single character takes drugs. I hate reading books with drug-taking, as it makes me feel ill. I know this is my own faint-heartedness, and I don't expect every modern writer to steer clear of it, but Tsiolkas takes it to ridiculous lengths. Every character, from 14 to 60 odd, dabbles in recreational drug taking. Perhaps Tsiolkas thinks it spices up the book? And don't get me started on the amount of swearing in The Slap. When I raved about Ned Beauman's novel Boxer, Beetle, Lynne asked me what I thought about the swearing - well, I didn't really notice it there. Maybe because it seemed fit for the characters, or was used intelligently. Tsiolkas is under the impression that a sentence isn't complete without some really horrible expletives in it.
The structure of the novel isn't what I expected. I thought we'd see the same incident from various perspectives, which would have been tricky to pull off, but potentially brilliant. Instead, we move between different characters, each chapter giving the viewpoint of a different person - from the party where the slap occurs, through the resultant court case, and then meandering onto some quite well observed chapters (the reminiscences of an old man, and a young man coming to terms with being gay and having a messed-up best friend) which had almost nothing to do with the rest of the plot. The last 200 pages should have been removed, or instead used as the starting point for other novels, as they were the best written sections, but entirely irrelevant. Richie - the young guy - is easily the most affecting character in The Slap, and has the final chapter, which is quite moving. I warmed to him with this sentence:
Richie had a dawning sense that the fact that men loved kicking a leather ball to one another boded ill for the sanity of the human race.
You tell 'em, Richie.
As I said at the beginning, Christos Tsiolkas is a good writer, which is what makes The Slap so annoying. If he'd been a bad writer treating his topic badly, that would have been fine - I'd have thrown the book to one side, and moved on. As it is, he has a brilliant way of capturing a character's voice. Although the sheer number of characters, all arriving in a couple of paragraphs in the first chapter, meant I had to write out a sheet telling me who was married to whom, with which children etc. etc., after a dozen or so pages they all became sharply outlined, and very well drawn. The writing was compelling, and I read all 483 pages more quickly than I read many novels half that length.
But - the flaws in structure and the waste of a potentially interesting topic, not to mention the incessant drug-taking and swearing for effect, made The Slap ultimately fail in my eyes - and (for these and other reasons) in the eyes of those I discussed it with at book group. I can't think of many bad books which yet reveal good writers, but with The Slap Tsiolkas has convinced me to consider reading him again, even when I couldn't appreciate the novel itself.