‘…The boy’s face had gone dark with fury. He raised his foot and kicked wildly into Harry’s shin. The speed was coursing through Hector’s blood, the hairs on his neck were upright. He saw his cousin’s raised arm, it spliced the air, and then he saw the open palm descend and strike the boy. The slap seemed to echo. It cracked the twilight…’
This is a very powerful ‘slam’ of a book, which is, on the surface, a harsh and damning portrait of three generations of middle class Australians, from mainly Greek heritage. This novel is a brilliant portrait of dysfunction – a group of individuals who are struggling, desperately at times, to carry on and continue in lives of sometimes quiet and not so quiet desperation. The author portrays a group of people he clearly feels strong empathy with, but is also willing to expose to harsh scrutiny, for their manifest failings. They are consistently off balance; in a state of tension which frequently explodes into violence, narcissism or resorting to drug abuse or brutal sex. Tsiolkas’ achievement in this novel is to portray the interior angst of each character, as they battle conflicting desires and allegiances. This novel has been highly controversial and has had a very polarised critical response. Moments of fine self reflection and sensitive consideration of past events, especially in Manolis’ heartfelt chapter, sit side by side with casual violence, drug use and some brutally described acts of sex.
One excellent feature of this novel is the clever structure. By positioning the ‘slap’ barbeque and introducing all characters in the first chapter, Tsiolkas entices the reader into making critical judgements about an unappealing group of people in action. The rest of the novel is allocated to single chapters presented from the viewpoint of the key characters. So the reading process is one of gradually learning the backstory of these characters, and having to gradually reflect, reframe and possibly dismantle the initial readings of this cast. This is a challenging and painful process for the reader, but one that embodied the theme of avoiding shallow judgements and prejudices. How long can we hold on to our prejudices, in the presence of new information and self awareness?
‘Manolis struggled to find words. ‘I saw so many people from the past, and it made me ashamed of how long it had been since we had seen each other. Forgive me, forgive me, Dimitri…
Dimitri turned back to him, smiling…’I should ask your forgiveness for not coming to visit you and Koula. There, we’re even…Life went too fast and fucking death goes too slow…’
This ‘class’ of men are depicted as sex obsessed, egotistical and unfaithful in their relationships with their partners. Both Hector and Harry take excessive pride in their physiques, their sexual prowess and in their ability to be visually attractive to younger women. Manolis, the aged patriarch who possesses more nobility, still fantasises of sleeping with the young women of his dreams. Gary is an angry and frustrated anglo Australian, under enormous pressure from his own self hatred and the difficulties of being married to his fragile and obsessional wife Rosie.
The women vary more in being a differing spread of self obsession and manipulation. Hector’s veterinarian wife Aisha gains strength from her career, and refusal to obey all of Hector’s expectations of how she should act as his wife. Yet she finds her values under siege in a conference she attends in Bangkok. Sandy plays the fearful, repressed and obedient wife to the constantly angry and brittle Hector. Rosie reacts to her disappointment in Garry by developing and unhealthily indulgent relationship with her four year old son Hugo. Anouk, Hector’s sister, is a single career woman who is struggling with scripting for a soap opera, while nursing a desire to write literature of greater self expression and power. The younger characters of Connie and Richie get caught up in the cycle of unhappiness as each battles with their own issues of identity and sexuality.
Like any portrait of dysfunctional characters or people in turmoil, the reading experience is distinctly uncomfortable and disturbing, as is watching a car crash or train wreck. But what lifts this novel well beyond the level of a voyeuristic experience of watching ‘the others’ from a safe distance, is the tone of respect the author pays to each character, no matter how much he may see them as self destructive. Tsiolkas gradually undermines any sense of superiority and disconnection we may feel after reading the dramatic first chapter where ‘the slap’ occurs. The following chapters, each narrated from a different perspective, forces the reader to reflect on the hasty judgements made in the first chapter, when we are presented with a roll call of all characters at the barbeque.
This is a timely novel in a social and political context where we are sometimes urged or dog whistled to believe stereotyped views of people, who are not of our social class, personal experience or political affiliation. Tsiolkas shows us that ‘the other’ is in fact ourselves, and in a context of increasing social segregation and exclusion, this is a timely challenge.
This finally, was love. This was its shape and essence, once the lust and ecstasy and danger and adventure had gone. Love, at its core, was negotiation, the surrender of two individuals to the messy, banal, domestic realities of sharing a life together.