It’s been a long time since I read Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap, and I’m not really sure why I haven’t written about it earlier. I had heard about The Slap sometime around its award winning spree in 2009 – it won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction, the Australian Literary Society’s Gold Medal and the Australian Book Industry Awards Book of the Year. But I was nervous about reading it, as I had attempted Tsiolkas’ Dead Europe in 2004 and found it rather too challenging for my fifteen-year-old brain.
Then in 2011 The Slap was made into a major ABC drama, and suddenly you couldn’t get away from it. I was intrigued by Tsiolkas’ premise, and the tagline for the series – Whose side are you on? – drew me right in. Interest piqued, I managed to score it as a Christmas present, and dove right into this wonderful, challenging novel.
The Slap’s star is its narrator. Omnipresent and unflinchingly curious about the lives of its subjects, Tsiolkas’ narrator pulls no punches when it comes to showing us what the characters are really like. The boy who was hit is the unmanageable apple of his mother’s eye; the man who slapped him was protecting his own son, and had been drinking beer all afternoon. Worded like that it feels that there can be no right answer – as the tagline suggests, the question is not who is in the right, but whose side do you take?
Even now, months after reading The Slap, the morality question still hangs over my head. I liked Rosie, the boy’s mother, who is overprotective only because she never thought she’d be able to have children. Yet I flinched away from some of her choices – letting a four-year-old breastfeed was just too much for me. Each of the eight characters given their own chapter to star in have the best intentions, want to protect themselves and their own, want what’s best in life. They are real people, keeping secrets, failing and trying again, acknowledging that they can’t always have what they want. They have sex in the kitchen while the children are in bed; they lust after their friends’ husbands; they tell truths and manipulate each other to get what they want.
Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap is an intriguing novel, and well worth the read. It reminds you that seeing the best in people isn’t all that’s required – to live well with others, you have to be prepared to look out for yourself too.