Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Book Review: The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas, is a story of several families and friends in Australia. Everyone is gathering for a friendly BBQ when one of the characters slaps a young child that is not his own. All hell breaks loose as lines are drawn and friends turn to enemies.

I had read many negative reviews of the book prior to starting it, which made me very hesitant. It appears that you either love it or hate it. Below, I try to organize my thoughts as I try to make sense as to whether I liked it or not.

Overall Impression
The Slap is extremely polarizing, as evidenced by other reviews I've seen. Some people are immediately turned off by the vulgarity in the language and sex scenes, while others praise the gritty story telling. I must say that for me the polarizing event itself was the slap. I agree that a stranger shouldn't hit a child, but this child had been repeatedly unruly and his parents should have disciplined him rather than praise or disregard his behavior. Yes, it was a wrong thing to do, but it was blown completely out of proportions by the mother of the child who was unable to move on from that event. If anything, her actions made me believe that the real abuse what was she was doing to her own child. The strong opinions of the characters were frequently unpleasant and the plot and setting are not outstanding, so I'm left with a bitter opinion of the book.

The chapters are told from the perspective of a single character. The story moves through them, so you see progression even if you see it somewhat disconnectedly. About half of the book is progressing towards the court, where Harry is to stand trial for having slapped the kid. Yes, you read that right: the mother wants him to go to jail for having slapped her misbehaving son. After that, the story feels anti-climatic, though the slap is referred to again and again. At this stage, the plot just meanders in order to place characters together and see the sparks fly.

A problem, however, is that you see through the characters only a single time. A chapter, though usually quite long, is not enough to see a full progression of the character. The two exceptions are Hector and Aisha because they actually evolve within their chapter. For the others, we do revisit most of them, but always from a separate point of view. It would have been much better to have had a smaller cast of characters and to revisit each in the later part of the story so we can see how they have changed with the plot. As it's told, most of the character stories appear cut off and static.

My first impression of the characters was extremely negative. Rather than appearing fleshed out and real, they resembled caricatures. Despite the different socio-economic background they all sounded too similar. It made it look like the author used a single template and changed only a few minor things to create his cast: this one is a woman, this one is muslim, this one is gay, etc. I suppose the author was trying to show that everyone is similar, but it feels like a half-hearted attempt and instead leaves you exhausted after reading about their equally strong, yet uncompromising opinions and their stereotypical views. Only towards the end of the book do you realize that there are indeed subtleties and variations in the characters and you become invested in their stories.

Unfortunately, the characters are pretty much all messed up in various ways. Because they can't be happy, they set out to destroy one another. They talk about how they want their children to be respectful and honorable, but none of them show that themselves. All the enmity between them really gets to you and wears you down. Of course, in real life people get angry and hurt others, but since all we're getting are snapshots of the characters it feels a lot more concentrated.

The story reminds me of one of the versions of the story/parable of the two monks and the woman. Two monks reach a stream and a woman demands their help to carry her and her bags across. The elder monk carries her and she leaves without thanking him. The younger monk fumes about her rudeness and when he speaks up the elder monk says something along the lines of: I put the woman down by the stream, why are you still carrying her? To me, this says something about forgiveness and letting go. Half of the characters in The Slap appear incapable of forgiveness and are unable to move on, reliving the slap over and over.

Setting / World Building
The story is set in Australia, mainly in the city of Melbourne. We do see snippets from other places when a few of the characters travel or have flashbacks. I have never been to Australia and was completely unfamiliar with the area. However, in the end this feels like it could happen to any large family in any cosmopolitan city in the world. Very little was required of me to transport me to this setting. This is in contrast with a prior book, Black Swan Green, which takes place in a rural town in England with lots of slang and colloquialisms I didn't know. Having lived in Los Angeles, I am more familiar with big cities and having lots of cultures clashing together.

Final Thoughts
When I read a book, I immerse myself in the story. I become the characters, carry out the plot, and explore the setting. Perhaps not everyone reads the same way I do, but it means that I allow stories to evoke feelings in me. When a story has banal, shallow, or repulsive characters, I have trouble enjoying the story. This is one such book. Maybe if I distanced myself a bit more, I would have better enjoyed it.

In the end, the social commentary about culture, family, forgiveness, raising children, and the varying opinions on each was interesting, if delivered a bit heavy handedly. It is certainly a book that forces you to think and confront a lot of your biases and opinions. This is not a light read, so if you are giving it a go I would recommend detaching yourself from the story and, above all, try not to take any sides. The controversial nature of the slap, however, will make for some very interesting discussion at the book club.

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