Review: The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas

Unusually, A Common Reader is writing a bad-tempered review.  I can’t see how The Slap could attract any other sort, because its a truly “feel-bad” novel with almost nothing to recommend it. Usually a Booker long-listing is some sort of recommendation that a book may be worth reading.  However, I found The Slap to be banal (in the sense of being commonplace and predictable) and crude,  more like a script for a television series such a Mistresses or Footballers Wives than a serious novel.

The style of writing reminds me very much of British crime writer Martina Cole, who’s work contains an equal number of unpleasant characters who also spend their time abusing each other.  At least Martina sets out to shock: her readers know what they are getting, but with its Booker long-listing, surely The Slap is supposed to be something rather better?

It’s a long book (483 pages).  Round about page 250 I found myself getting cross with myself for choosing to read a book solely because of its Booker status, but I persevered to the end through further episodes in the lives of this miserable crew.  The Slap is not particularly well written – while it held my interest, it didn’t make me feel good about myself for carrying on with it – this is not an uplifting reading experience!  There are no surprises in it, no character development, nothing to make you feel that the author has any fresh insight into the human condition.  For me, a “good book” will make me feel sorry when it ends and sad to let its characters go – with The Slap I heaved a sigh of relief that I would never have to think of any of these people again.

The story is very simple.  A barbecue is being held, and when two children are fighting, the father of one of them slaps the other child.  The parents of the slapped child are outraged and report the matter to the police.  Each subsequent chapter follows one of the various characters during the period leading up to and immediately after the trial.  Most of the characters are unpleasant in a wide variety of ways, the only exception being an indigenous Australian who has converted to Islam (but even he seems to have no desire to contribute to the resolution of the grievance but only to protect his family from its effects).

What does The Slap say about the human condition?  That humans have no capability for self-awareness, that we act entirely to suit ourselves with no thought for others, that we are bound by our upbringing and our native culture and cannot conceive of ways of thinking other than our own, that we are dominated by our physicality, defined by our need for gratification whether through sex or drugs.

There is no culture in Christos Tsiolkas’ world.  It is a place of  binge-drinking, illicit and often violent sex, the quest for revenge for even the mildest slight.  Its an entertainment culture of mindless existence with no thought for anything beyond parties and pubs.  All the characters are like spoilt children, wanting to get their own way and having no thought about the effect their actions may have on others.  Its nihilism would work if the writer had the skills to present some sort of comment on the lifestyle depicted, but it seems to be nihilism for its own sake, an unremitting stream of negative actions and emotions revealing the hell of human existence with none of the literary style which would make the reader feel there was any point in reading about it.

The author seems to hate his characters and has created a set of stereotypes on whom he can vent his spleen – the self-made businessman who goes home and beats up his wife, the drug-taking teenagers, the earth-mother ageing hippy who breast-feeds her three-year old, the conference attenders who screw around while high on speed, the drunk neer-do-well with pretensions to be an artist.  Its a world populated by cardboard characters who all act so totally predictably.

There are innumerable sex scenes in this book, but the sex is usually brutalising, and in typically porno style, the women apparently enjoy it – after one particularly exploitative session the man apologises to his wife and she replies, “but I like making love to you” – thanks Christos, but some of your readers didn’t exactly enjoy reading about it!  On another occasion an adulterous wife invites her husband to treat her like a whore because she feels she “deserves” it.  I don’t think Christos has a high view of women, and the concept of tenderness or consensuality seems alien to him (and why on earth does he have to go into the details of condoms discarded on hotel room floors or the shape of semen stains on soiled pants? – too much detail!).

Most of the writing is straightforward narrative and when he occasionally launches into descriptive passages he find something unpleasant to write about –

His liver’s fucked, Gary had warned her, but she would have known that at once.  His skin was corpse-grey; raw red and purple sores marked his arms.  He wheezed when he spoke and every few minutes his body would double over in racked, tortured coughing,  resulting in thick, globby phlegm he would spit onto the ground or into a tissue.

Even the landscape is somewhere you’d never want to visit –

The unrelenting flat suburban grid of the northern suburbs surrounded them.  The further they drove, the more Rosie thought the world around them was getting uglier, the heavy grey of the sky weighing down on the landscape, crushing down on them.  The lawns and nature strips they passed were yellowing, grim, parched.  The natural world seemed leached of colour.  She thought it was because this world was so far from the breath of the ocean, that it was starved of air.

When he moves on to the older characters I hoped for some insight, some critique of the younger generation which seems to be bent on tearing themselves apart, but I found no respite from the unpleasantness.  When 68 year old Maonlis is confronted by a daughter in law who speaks her mind, we read –

He straightened his back.  He must have looked fierce because instantly she perceived her mistake and recoiled from him.  He wanted to grab her hair, pull her face to the table, beat her as if she was a little girl.

I’ve written enough about The Slap.  Its a nasty and unpleasant book, with no redeeming features in my view.  Everyone else seems to think its wonderful – good luck to them, but for me its my “worst read so far” of 2010.


106 thoughts on “Review: The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas

  1. So good to hear my views on this book validated after hearing so many good reviews. Great concept and idea unfortunately erodes to nothing more than author’s rude fantasy, with misogyny evident from page 1. TV series equally offensive and unrealistic. Only read it for my Bookclub and I found it totally cringeworthy, crude, indulgent and obvious. It could have been so good ….


  2. The TV Series started on Thursday on BBC4. Glad I haven’t read the book. I watched the first episode of the programme and decided I did not like any of the characters very much, apart from maybe Aisha.


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  4. I haven’t read the book. I’m watching the TV series. As a native Melbournian, and someone who had Greek neighbors and Greek friends on all sides, I found Tsiolkas’ story most authentic when depicting Greeks. I’m not saying it is totally true to life, but the actions were plausible in the suspension of disbelief that story worlds invite. What I found unbelievable was that one character would push so hard to take the slap to court, when in the real world, a one-off event like this would in all likelihood be settled between family and friends, or probably more realistically, fences would be erected, friends cut off, family estranged, and people would get on with their compartmentalized lives. The fabric of fiction is conflict, and Tsiolkas gives us plenty. It has been said that his male fantasy of women is misogynist, and I think there’s a strong argument in favor of it. If you’re going to have women demeaned to the extent that he demeans them then you’re going to have to give more background substance as to why. Taking one example, we have Connie, who supposedly because she values some letters from her father (?) motivates her towards Hector. We’re going to need a lot more character development than that if we’re going to believe her crush. The story unravels when you look past the saucy actors.


    • Rob – sorry for the delay in replying. A very interesting commentary – thanks for contributing. I agree that in real life the problem would probably have been resolved between family and friends. I wonder if the author’s male fantasy of women (as you put it) is in any way affected by his being gay? I agree totally that there needs to be a lot more character development for this book to hang together


  5. I am still one who rather liked the book. I don’t think negative or caricatured portrayals of people or a place invalidate a book. I think Tsiolkas has some things to say about an element of our western society that is aggressive and/or self-focused. It doesn’t mean ALL of society is like this – or ALL of Melbourne even (!). Literature is about presenting truths not THE truth, at least as I see it. I guess one thing about it is that The Slap has got people talking … though I hate the promotion for the adaptation re “Whose side are you on”? I see the book as being broader than that.


    • Hi Sue – you’re rigth there. The Slap has certainly got people talking. I can’t understand how much I’m enjoying the TV series when I hated the book so much. PErhaps it was Tsiolklas’ writing that upset me?


  6. G’day Tom,

    The issue is one of authenticity. We seem to demand it from our writers. There’s authenticity of story and prose; the two overlap but sit at different levels. You can have a completely ‘fictionalized’ story but it reads well because the writing is authentic. You can have an authentic story, because the ‘facts’ presented resonate with experiences you’ve had, making the story feel ‘real’. If the writer chooses a slice from daily life, they’ve pretty much assigned themselves the task of being authentic right from the start. This is why we judge The Slap the way we do. The style of writing also adds to or detracts from this. You could be authentic but tongue in cheek – that is, revealing the author’s hand. The Slap (the TV version) is drama – but then you get these voice overs which can be construed as revealing the author’s hand, but it is done with gravitas, so it only adds to the drama, doesn’t lighten it. I don’t know the author personally, so I can’t comment on his personal position vis-a-vis women. All I can say is how the women in his story are portrayed. The story is clearly a male-centric construction. The evidence for this, I’ll have to put into another post.


    • Hi Rob – you certainly have some well thought-out views on this book. I hadn’t thought about the voice-overs until you mentioned them. Yes, they’re done with gravitas, but perhaps not with the author’s “voice”. What is the purpose of them I wonder? The series actually reminds me a little of the movie, American Beauty – a sort of observational stance, not too involved, perhaps a little semi-detached. Thanks for your comment. Much to think about there.


  7. Hi Tom,

    I’m not sure about the voice overs in the TV series. I suppose they’re meant to key us into a certain view about the characters, so that we don’t misconstrue their motivations. Like when we hear about Connie’s letters. I don’t think they were necessary, because the action was sufficient for us to work it out ourselves what was going on. Traditionally voice overs came from the first person perspective, e.g., William Holden’s voice over in Sunset Boulevard. The voice over there adds because of the dramatic irony, that the main character is telling the story from past the grave. We are drawn into the spiral to destruction knowingly, yet go willingly along. In The Slap, the voice over jolts us out of the stream of action, creating distance, like we’re looking into an aquarium of exotic creatures that we will never get quite get close enough to touch.


  8. the series on tv has taken any strengths from the book and amplified them by focussing on a certain character for each hour we can become much more emotionally connected than we could in the book , and the acting is , by and large , fantastic. I think Mr Tsiolkas should stick to screenwriting and allow the actors to bring his work to something special


  9. The Common Reader’s review is revealing and insightful – thank you. Revealing, maybe because it comes from the fact he is British and perhaps unfamiliar with Australian ‘culture’. As an Australian, I can affirm that everything that the reviewer dislikes about the novel is in fact a fairly accurate protrayal of Australian society post-1980s: it is obsessed with pleasure, material wealth and violence (war and sport are the only 2 activities that Aussies are made to feel proud of). The description of the ‘landscape’ – the stultifying and endless suburbs that typify Aussie cities – is sadly accurate. Insightful because of the reviewer’s attention to lack of culture: Aussie culture should be rich in its multiculturalism, and should have embraced its ancient indigenous culture which could have offered so much. But instead it has become superficial and nihilistic. It has declared war on its indigenous people, it hates the small numbers of refugees who seek shelter here, it has turned its back on multiculturalism following government policies designed to weaken its influence and promote US-style ‘patriotism’. Aussie culture is now very shallow as it has deleted a history that included depth of character of the country folk (indigenous folk, farmers and cattlemen alike), the concept of ‘mateship’, the perverse pride in its convict background, a remembrance of the Eureka Stockade and what that stood for (i.e. opposition to sending all state gold revenue to Britain rather than using it to build up the colony) and in its place instigated a sadistic cultural myth of the ‘ANZAC hero’, a lie that Australian history started at Gallipoli in 1915. It is particularly sad that a Greek writer has taken such a stance to Australia: he has portrayed the nation truthfully, but hatefully, bringing out only the worst aspects – perhaps the saddest being an indigenous person converting to Islam as perhaps a last resort to escaping the dominant white culture./


  10. Having watched the entire series now, what drives it along primarily is questions of sexual motivation. We watch to see what pans out, drawn along by our own titillating desire. Will Hector go all the way with Connie? Will Richie try something sexual with Hector or will he dob him in? Will Connie tell the truth to Richie? Will Aisha discover Hector’s infidelity? Will Hector discover Aisha’s? Will Harry become violent again? (Not sexual, but linked.) Will Manolis leave his wife? And so on. When you consider that domestic violence is still rampart in our society, alcoholism, divorce etc, Tsiolkas gives us a pretty good snapshot of the carnage out there. It’s entertaining. In the same breath mentioning those dysfunctional statistics, The Slap first and foremost is entertainment. The sexually motivated fabric of the story is the main focus, the other stuff, the snapshots we get into the characters’ lives through setting and cultural motifs I think only serve as a prop to support the sexual vicissitudes of the story. We don’t get any insight into why Manolis and his wife’s marriage is petrified beyond the superficial (they no longer have sex). We don’t really get any deeper insight into why Hector and Aisha’s marriage has faded – the only strong clue is Aisha’s disapproval of Harry and Hector’s implicit support of him – once again linked to sexual dominance (via Harry’s violent nature). And so on. Thus, in total, beyond the saucy acting, I found the entire story a dressed-up soap.


  11. Not to be rude, common reader but I think your review reveals more about your own attitudes than it does abou the book. Why do you say the author hates the characters? He doesn’t. You do it seems. I don’t. Even the ones I most want to hate, and Harry is the clear choice for top of the list, get their moment in the reader’s gaze that allows you to empathize to some extent, even if you don’t want to. How you could think the author hates Ritchie or Manolis is puzzling. I find them so kindly portrayed, even when their world is sordid, narrow or sad. You choose the ugliest passages you can find to illustrate your points. There are also some joyous ones. When the kids go to the concert there is beauty in their fellowship. Maybe the fact they were using drugs had a particular effect on you that it might not have on every reader? Anyhow my 2 cents is that it is a great book and the series was pretty great too.


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