Friday, August 17, 2012

Book Review: The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

A friend dismissed this book as gimmicky, and I suppose it is, but I don't think that's a good reason to not read it. As it states right on the cover, as a barbecue, one guest slaps someone else's child, and the book goes from there. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different person from the barbecue, starting with the host and eventually getting to both the slapper and the slappee's mother. I wasn't sure how that was going to work exactly, particularly since at first some of the narrators seems only very tangentially related, but it does actually work quite well in the end.

Sure, it's gimmicky. But this sort of thing does happen and it's a nice hook to hang the whole book on. It really is a black-and-white moment for most people, and many of them are shocked when everyone isn't on their side. Even for people not directly involved (like the slapped kid's mother's friend), it's still a very visceral and potent issue, bringing up issues of abuse, neglect, good parenting, limits, loyalty, friendship, and trust.

I didn't like two of the characters very much, which was a problem, and it was even more of a problem since they were narrators #1 and #3. #1 was the host, Hector, and #3 was his cousin, Harry, the guy who slapped the child. They are both Greek misogynist assholes (although Harry much more so). In fact, by the end of the Harry chapter I was seconds away from giving up on the book altogether, but the next chapter redeemed it nicely. But seriously, these men are supposedly adults but they act like teenagers, and not very mature teenagers at that, with constant drugs, cheating, fast cars, show-offy money grubbing, and they were just horribly unappealing people. I felt like a lot of that was done purely for shock value, which I don't appreciate. Details should be in a book to further the plot or character development, not to shock your readers. That's a very immature tactic. That said, I did like Aisha (although he thoughts on sex were a bit laughable and obviously not written by a woman) and Anouk and Connie and Richie. So Mr. Tsiolkas writes women (and gay teen boys) better than men. The men were much more caricatures and caused incessant eye-rolling, but the women were much more believable, closer to 3-dimensional characters.

That said, there were issues. Anouk isn't actually developed much (which is a shame as she's very interesting), Aisha acts considerably out of character at one point, I never understood Rosie and her husband's relationship at all, a few loose ends aren't tied up, and seriously I just don't believe that every single person in this book including a great deal of responsible adults with real jobs and kids would do drugs (they all do at one point. All of them.) The language is foul, and I'm no prude. It doesn't bother me so much except that it's lazy and again it feels like it's done for shock value, not because people actually talk this way (in front of children? In front of grandparents? At work?) The ending petered out a bit for my taste without ending quite solidly. It was a good effort. It did keep me turning the pages and wondering what would happen next. It certainly brings up a lot of interesting issues and would make for an interesting book club discussion (although most book clubs I know would be quite put off by the terrible language, graphic sex, unnecessary yet persistent drug use and cheating, and just generally offensive bits that serve no real purpose.)  I like that it was set in Melbourne - that was unique for me - and I loved how multicultural it was. I'm glad I read it. I didn't love it and it sure isn't for everyone, but it did really make me think.

I bought this book at the Friends of the Library book sale.

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