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Christos Tsiolkas’ "The Slap" brings us into the lives of a group of middle-class extended families and friends living in Melbourne, Australia. As with families all around the world, there are already struggles with relationships, finances, personal issues such as addiction and the ever persistent question of human existence, “what are we here for?” Already the beginnings of the perfect storm, the fires of human adversity ignite at a neighborhood barbeque when an undisciplined, unruly 4-year-old, Hugo, threatens another youngster and is slapped by the threatened child’s father, Harry.
Instantly, the already tenuous bonds of human relationships begin to unravel. Hugo's parents call the police and decide to sue Harry for child abuse and assault. But Hugo's mother, Rosie, finds herself pressured make peace, particularly from her best friend, Aisha, whose husband, Hector, is Harry’s cousin. Gary, Hugo’s father, has his own personal difficulties with the situation, running the gamut from indignation at Harry’s actions to his own personal resentments toward Rosie and many of her parenting decisions, while finding more comfort in blaming others than taking any personal responsibility in his own failures at child rearing and marriage.
These characters sink further into the quicksand of hurt feelings as friendships and lovers are cast aside in the interest of preserving the warring family units and heartfelt offers of reconciliation are cast back in the face of those trying to make amends. The novel, structured around 8 segments dedicated to the eight witnesses of “the slap”, clearly shows how much messier life can get when hurt feelings are not accepted and dealt with, but instead used as a catalyst to create greater negativity in lashing out at others in general and displays of racial prejudice in particular. Likewise there is much hope and wisdom shown for those of the 8 who eventually choose to move toward a more positive and self-clarifying interpretation of the pain and confusion that the event produces in all present. Overall, it is a study in how one event can bring a multitude of vastly different responses in individuals, depending on the tolls they use and the choices they make in dealing with the experience.
"The Slap" shows us a rather dark picture of Australian society but Tsiolkas paints each of his main characters with such honest expression, that the reader cannot help but be able to resonate with each one of them, perhaps a little too well. It is one of those books where you can put yourself in the place of one character and feel their experience so clearly that you almost feel that you could make the same choices they made, and yet when you move to a character with an opposing viewpoint, you can see yourself in their shoes as well. And despite Australian setting, the issues involved are so much part of the universal human experience that we all share, it is very much a story that could take place anywhere at any time, every at your own neighborhood barbeque! It is a hard-edged, powerful and thought provoking book and I truly look forward to reading other works by Christos Tsiolkas.