Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Slap / by Christos Tsiolkas

An Australian author of Greek extraction, Christos Tsiolkas is a lifelong resident of Melbourne. He was the editor of his student newspaper in both high school and college and penned his first novel, Loaded, in 1995 at the
 age of 30. The novel was later made into the film Head On, a piece which won several AFI (Australian Film Institute) awards and gained international notoriety for both its controversial subject matter and riveting performances. In addition to his six full-length novels, Tsiolkas has written a number of plays and screenplays, many of which, like his fiction, have held worldwide acclaim. The Slap, his latest novel published in 2008, examines the conflict-driven sequence of events following a publicly controversial incident at a neighborhood barbecue.

"He bloody broke it. He should be punished."

At a family get together, an obnoxious three-year-old named Hugo acts aggressively toward another child without intervention. When the father of the victimized child sees nothing being done by the parents of the perpetrator, he slaps the kid across the face. Everyone is so horrified by the incident that, after a brief pause, the families disperse. A day later, the parents of the slapped child have the slapper arrested. The event is conflicted and complicated enough but their are deeper issues among the adult party-goers themselves. Hosts Hector and Aisha, a childless interracial couple, have their own private secrets just as they feel conflicted, caught in the middle as they are, about the incident. The slapper is Hector's hot-headed cousin, Harry, their original family having immigrated from Greece a generation previous. Harry defends his actions, feeling he was justified to discipline another couple's unruly offspring, and is defensive about the whole thing along along with Hector's mother and father who also witnessed the event. Hugo's parents are Rosie and Gary, a hippie-ish Anglo-saxon couple who say they never intervened because they believe in a more "naturalistic" resolution to matters of this sort, preferring to stand back and let any repercussions develop without a third party. Both Rosie and Gary--but especially Rosie--are simply outraged at Harry's act and are planning to press charges in full despite the uproar from the other side. As the trial approaches, furious Rosie and defensive Harry put more and more pressure on Aisha and Hector to testify on their behalf.

This book isn't really about child abuse or proper modes of discipline or anything like that. The slapping incident is really just a way to examine the dynamics of family and friendship connections, originally at the barbecue to look at how people of different backgrounds come together and then into a more privatized world of individual families and relationships. It's not an easy book to summarize. Tsiolkas uses his premise, a not uncommon everyday incident, to stabilize his larger structure. But his real talent is for exploring the inner lives of his eight primary characters, four women and four men, ranging in age from 18 to 70, all from different perspectives, family situations and ethnic origins. There are no stock characters in Tsiolkas' story. Each individual is a sharp observer with a particular personality, a personalized opinion. As things happen in the lives of the characters that have nothing to do with the case and are far more interesting, the audience is introduced to the truly idiosyncratic stations of all involved. No one is necessarily evil, no one deserves to be hit, or even judged negatively though all are distinctly flawed. Everyone means well, and everyone is doing the best he or she can; but then again, everyone is awfully angry. (FIC TSIOLKAS)

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