A couple of years ago, I made a list of the Most Important Novels in My Life. Since then, I’ve been rereading them to see how well they stand the test of time. Christos Tsiolkas’ “The Slap” remains near the top of my list.
The story is set in suburban Melbourne and follows a core group of friends and relatives that cross racial and class lines. It opens with Hector and Aisha hosting a barbecue. Near the end of the evening, one of the kids, spoiled three-year-old Hugo, the son of overbearing but permissive mother Rosie and alcoholic father Gary, is slapped by Hector’s cousin Harry when the young boy violently threatens Harry’s son. The event is shocking. The party quickly ends. And the story begins.
The novel is divided into eight chapters, each devoted to one of the characters present on the day of the barbecue. The characters tend to line up in support of Harry or against him.
Hector gets the first chapter as the host. Anouk is the only unmarried adult featured, a soap opera writer involved with a young star and yearning to write a serious novel. Harry is a successful businessman and hedonist who hides his anxieties behind drugs and sex—and now has to worry because he is being brought up on charges of striking the child. Connie is an eighteen-year-old who lives with her aunt and works at the veterinary office run by Aisha (Hector’s wife), who has a later chapter to herself. Rosie is Hugo’s mother, determined to make Harry pay for his misdeed. Manolis is Hector’s father, a seventy-year-old man whose chapter is rich and poignant with the indignities and inevitabilities of aging. Richie is Connie’s best friend, comfortable with his gay identity but obsessed with Hector.
The structure of the novel is brilliant. By focusing in-depth chapters on each of these characters (some of the chapters are 80 pages), we get close to them, we understand them completely, we feel unquestioning empathy toward them, we see how they all relate to each other, and we are immersed in the conflict of race, culture, and class. The slap itself and its repercussions is threaded through the novel, but hardly the focus of the narrative.
The real brilliance is the writing. It is propulsive. Emotional. Uninhibited. There are explicit, detailed scenes of sex, drug use, brutality, tenderness, and more—and none of it feels gratuitous or overdone. The writing sparkles, the pages turn, what’s going to happen next?
Is “The Slap” for everybody? Absolutely not. The mixed reviews are a testament to that. But boy was it for me.
P.S. The novel was made into a miniseries twice: once in Australia and once in the U.S. where the setting was transferred to California. I didn’t watch either of them.