It's only rarely these days that I find a book I can't put down. Somehow even in the grip of the most thrilling dramas I remember that I'm only half-way through the dishes, or that the groceries haven't been put away, and the spell I could so easily fall into as a kid is broken. When Christos Tsiolkas' The Slap was first published. I paid attention to the publicity – and of that there was plenty – but somehow the idea of the book itself didn't grip me. A bunch of people standing around at a BBQ? Yawn. Why read about something I often experience first-hand?
However, when I was doing my all-to-regular op-shop book trawl, I came across a copy for the bargain price of three dollars, and decided to find out what all the hype was really about. Four hours later, here I am, hungry and dehydrated in the post-novel daze that's hard to shake off when a good story has really gotten under your skin.
Tsiolkas creates layered, often morally-ambiguous characters that defy our expectation of the good guy versus bad guy narrative – and more importantly, our expectations of what constitutes a good person, a loving parent, or a meaningful marriage. With these questions in mind the everyday setting of a family barbeque is used as the backdrop for a more complex investigation of loyalty and honesty, and the unsolvable opposition of competing truths.
After introducing the scene, including that fateful slap, the author devotes one chapter to each of the main characters. In this way we are able to discover and empathise with all people present, leaving us with the realisation that happiness is only a fine line between what we know and what we refuse to know.
There were a few surprises towards the end, though the final page was disappointing in the tiredness of its impending-romance trope. On the whole though, this is a gripping expose of the ways in which our relationships ruin and define us, how spite and faith and family twist love into strange new forms, and how in the end, the choices we make are sometimes all we have left to live for.
The Slap is still available in most general bookstores for around $32.95, but is old enough now to be entering the realm of second-hand shopping - the best of both worlds.