Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Blogging the Booker 3: The Slap
(Slight change of plans here: having just finished Christos Tsiolkas's The Slap, I thought I'd review it now, while it's still fresh in my mind. Parrot & Olivier in America will come later in the week.)
The Slap is the first Christos Tsolkias novel I have read, and going into it I didn't know much of what to expect. I knew the basic outline (a group of friends are having a bbq, one father slaps someone else's son, reverberations ensue), but that was about it. From the back-cover blurb, I further learned that the book is also concerned with many of the Big Issues facing modern Australia. And, indeed, that's a significant theme of The Slap, in that our cast of characters come from a diverse range of ethnicities, classes & religions (interestingly, politics as it is most often understood - parliamentary party politics - is barely a theme at all, which is perhaps an accurate reflection of average Australians). In that sense, The Slap can be seen as a novel in the style of the modernists of the 19th century, in which people did discuss society and its problems.
The Slap is told from the perspective of eight people, all of whom were present at the bbq in question. The first is Hector, host of the party, and throughout the book we also hear from the slapper (as it were), the slappee's mother, and various other members of the party (six adults, two teenagers, none of the children). Each section is narrated from the person's POV, in omniscient third-person, meaning that we get to enter their minds and contrast their thoughts with their speech. The chapters are presented chronologically, meaning that we don't see the same events narrated from different people's points of view, but that each section pushes the story further along. (That said, we do get some flashbacks/character reflections, filling in some of the gaps.)
One thing that becomes clear fairly quickly is that those who have problems with books in which the characters are unlikeable will probably not find much here to grasp on to. Not many of the characters are completely unsympathetic, but there's also a fair bit of ugliness here. Most of the characters in relationships are unfaithful at some point (in desires if not in actual deed), most of the men are aggressive and/or violent towards the women and regular drunkeness/drug use is pretty much a given for everyone. These are all outworkings of inner turmoil, so happy characters are pretty few & far between in The Slap's world.
Despite the big themes and unflattering version of modern Australia Tsiolkas presents, it is to his credit that he gets most of the dialogue pretty right - it never sounds forced or wooden, and despite The Slap's length (nearly 500 pages), it is actually a pretty quick read. It may not make you feel particularly happy, but there is something captivating about the world Tsiolkas presents. I do have some slight quibbles - first, that I never quite got over the thought that the cast of characters was just a bit too contrived. I realise that it was a fairly big bbq that Hector and Aisha were throwing, and that their different backgrounds (him Greek, her Indian) would naturally increase the diversity of their social circle. But, still, it did seem a little as if any ethnic/religious group that's present in any numbers in Melbourne had a representative at the party. And while most of the chapters worked well, there was one that I thought a little too tangential to the main story. Broadening of scope is fine, but for most of the chapter I wondered why we were all of a sudden reading about a minor character's interactions with an entirely separate set of characters.
Overall, I suspect The Slap is probably too much of a state-of-modern-Australia novel to win the Booker Prize. Tsiolkas's prose is clear & unfussy, but certainly not beautiful (as I already noted, he has a fine talent for dialogue - poorly-rendered speech would've sunk this book). I enjoyed it (for a given value of 'enjoyed'), but I'd be surprised if it made its way onto the shortlist, let alone became the winner.
Next: Peter Carey's Parrot & Olivier in America.