Rarely does a book manage to fill me with apprehension after just one paragraph. But The Slap did it. After just one paragraph I was prepared to hate this book. I usually hate books that only have despicable characters in them.
Set in Melbourne, the story revolves around a group of people related to each other by blood, friendship, marriage. While these people are together at a barbecue, one of them slaps a three-year old child across the face to protect his own son from getting hit by the child. The group is then divided between those who think that the child deserved it and those who believe that no one should ever hit a child and that the family should press charges.
From the description above, you would think that the genre of this book is legal drama, or perhaps a murder mystery, but what it really is is a character study that has mostly nothing to do with the titular slap. Divided into chapters where each chapter follows a different character, it reveals their secrets and dark desires. It is unrelenting in its portrayal of these people's lack in basic morality, and it is an ugly world it paints. There are no good people to offer redemption here, no one to shed a light in this bleak suburban existence, just bad and less bad people. People that are obsessed by how they look, how their lives look, how their own needs will be satisfied. Except maybe one.
It is that person, right at the end of the story, who made me change my perception of the book. This person would probably be judged as ”bad” by some (hopefully a few), but in my eyes he never did anything inexcusable. This made me wonder if some of the characters I found horrible, narcissistic, self-absorbed would get a pass by other readers, just like the slap was deemed horrible by some and ok by others. And, perhaps, that's exactly the point Tsiolkas is trying to make: that we all play by our own set of rules, and as long as we don't break any rules or are too outspoken about the ones that we do break, our own version of immorality goes largely unnoticed by the world around us. But morality is so bound by cultural standards that it becomes a very relevant question, especially in this day and age, in our multicultural Western societies. At several points in the book, for example, the adults complain of young people not showing respect for their elders. This complaint is, in itself, laughable, because, by all accounts, the adults in this story haven't done much to deserve this respect – they just expect it.
An easy read, The Slap kept me interested throughout, its depiction of some deeply flawed people like a bad car accident that just forces you to rubberneck. Thankfully, my fear that I would hate this book was unfounded. I didn't love the book either. The lack of redeeming features in the characters felt unrealistic, and that so many rotten of them would find each other to spend time and procreate with only amplified that feeling. But it was definitely a thought-provoking book that I would recommend to my less-sensitive friends.