Tsiolkas‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas unveils a thin layer of smog from our eyes to expose the chaos that lies beneath the veneer of our multicultural society. When a child is slapped by another parent at a backyard barbecue, the effects ripple through the North, South, East and Western suburbs of Melbourne testing beliefs, morals, friendships, loyalties and the truths of the main characters in an uncompromising, unpretentious and honest narrative that captivates and awakens the reader. In one chapter each, eight characters present at the barbecue share their views on the slap and its many consequences on the friendship circle.  Tsiolkas’s characterisation is fearless, he places us into their minds, their desires, fantasies, and their pasts enabling us to better understand their present. Each chapter has enough to constitute a short story but Tsiolkas threads their stories together with such expertise they make an irresistible whole.

Tsiolkas’s characters are real, so real that their voices loom loud above the pages. Whether it’s the elderly Manolis who hobbles with the weight of loneliness and disappointments, the complexity of today’s youth in Connie and Richie or the burden of adulthood that cuffs Hector, these characters are the voices of our society. Even though some are not particularly likeable, we are compelled to read on because there’s a certain truth that echoes on the page, an honesty that can’t be ignored. Tsiolkas’s language is powerful and his descriptions so raw that his words invade the page with no warning, shocking the reader.  

‘The Slap’ is a scattered reflection of our society. From the bleak and monotonous western suburbs to the glamorous East, Tsiolkas has captured the heart of multicultural Melbourne, where generalisations, ethnic hostility, identity, morals and stereotypes unite to illustrate social and cultural issues. Manolis, an elderly Greek migrant, believes that his generation have “bred monsters,” and laments at the current generation’s selfishness, their lack of respect. His wife cannot warm to her Indian daughter in law, Aisha, wishing her son married a Greek girl, even though her daughter’s marriage to a Greek man ended in divorce. This typifies the attitudes prevalent in many migrant communities and Tsiolkas does not hold back, he honours his characters with their truth. Through them we reinforce our own truths and discover that within these characters’ minds lurk thoughts we don’t dare voice. We recognise their consciences, their fears, their insecurities, and the humanity that binds us together.       

The novel’s setting is an ideal battleground for the differing cultures that envelope Melbourne. Multiculturalism enriches our country like no other, but Tsiolkas chips at the intolerance of our society until it screams on the page. In one scene Van sings “wog man, wog man,” putting on a “ching-chong” voice, in another Manolis’s nephew Harry says Australians don’t “give a fuck about their children.” Through a string of sayings that have become social anthems, ‘The Slap’ reinforces Australia’s identity crises and questions what it really means to be Australian. From religion and its stereotype, to the wogs, the bogans, the Aboriginals, Tsiolkas’s Australia is a conundrum.

‘The Slap’ weaves a web of drugs, hostility, sex, abuse, domestic violence, corruption, around our society and challenges the role of men and women, parents and children. It is our mirror that reveals a blemished reflection. We see the world as an aging man, a confused teen, a mother, a single woman, a gay boy and we feel. Whether it’s outrage, sympathy, understanding, confusion, pain, happiness, disappointment, Tsiolkas challenges our beliefs and dares us to imagine what it may be like to live as another, plonking us in a harsh reality, to a corrupt society in need of repair.

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