This provocative novel explores the darker side of suburban Australia, no longer the open, tolerant “lucky country.” Tsiolkas’s frenetic tale focuses on the lives of several Australians, both Anglo and Ethnic, as they try to cope with the traumatic consequences of an afternoon barbecue. The event becomes a powerful symbol for the author’s intricate examination of racism and infidelity when reason is weakened and passion reigns.
Hector and Aisha are your average hard-working Australians
- educated and urbane, outwardly at ease with their lives. Aisha is a successful veterinarian and Hector a government worker,
but both seem to be in the throes of marital angst. As they migrate between "easy, delightful sex and cruel, exhausting fighting," only Hector’s feverish sucking on cigarettes seems to relieve the stresses and strains of raising their two young children.
Hector spends much of his waking hours “just trying to take the edge off,”
and Aisha is blind to her husband’s illicit dalliances - popping Valium and surreptitiously snorting amphetamines in their bathroom. Hector currently enjoys the charms of Connie, a much younger paramour, his mind full of erotic thoughts of her, while Aisha is left to prepare for the barbecue, her calmness in the face of a crisis doing
much to assuage Hector’s propensity towards terminal impulsiveness.
Within these opening pages, Tsiolkas establishes his usual scenario, his characters' lives threatening to collapse under the weight of cruel accusation. At first, the barbecue progresses amicably. Aisha’s friend Rosie and her drunken husband, Gary, arrive with their boy, Rocco. Another friend, the glamorous Anouk, is also present. A scriptwriter for a trashy prime-time soap opera, Anouk hates her job but “loves the pay packet,” yet she aches for her own brand of grand independent literary success.
It is, however, the selfish actions of Harry - Hector’s hot-headed cousin - who steamrolls the story forwards and lays the groundwork for much of the enmity that follows. As the late afternoon sun appears soft and low, Harry lifts the boy while Hector sees his cousin’s raised arm slicing the air, open palm descending and striking Rocco, the scene echoing and cracking in the twilight.
The exhilaration of “the slap” is electric, fiery and exciting. Half-plastered Gary is the first to respond, yelling profanities at the enraged Harry; Hector is actually glad the boy has finally been punished.
From here the author binds his protagonists together in alternative dramatic voices of gossip and suspicion, their lives like a jumble of hard-edged dominoes. Each person, whether they like it or not, is forced to take sides in this world of “wogs and snobs” (and some pretty angry Anglos). Meanwhile, Tsiolkas skillfully slices into his characters’ psyches, intuiting their hopes and dreams, secret prejudices and private jealousies.
Even then, “the slap” reverberates throughout in a powerful whirlwind of money, drugs, senseless affairs
and brutal sex. In spite of all the vindictiveness, the moral ambivalence and petty resentments, Tsiolkas’s world feels alive and vibrant, the author beautifully exploring the deep contradictions of multiculturalism along with the powerful blossoming of adolescent first love.
[Editor's note: The Slap is on The Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2010 longlist, announced Tuesday, 27 July 2010.]