It’s rare for me to relinquish a book from my grasp, but there has been one book that’s proved the exception to that rule. In fact, I couldn’t wish it further from me and did, when I posted it to my sister because she needed it for research purposes, send it with the explicit instructions that I didn’t care what she did with that book, provided that she didn’t inflict it on anyone else and that I never, never, ever, ever saw it again. Please.
I have to admit that this is a blog that I’ve almost written a thousand times over, but have chickened out of every other time. That’s in part due to my wholesome upbringing, which results in anti-book sentiments being stifled by the adage that if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. It’s also in part because in stark, inversely proportional contrast to my enjoyment of it, this book keeps going from critical success to critical success and I worry that it’s not the book, it’s me.
For the record, the vehemency with which I dislike the book troubles me too—I want nothing more than for writers to succeed. But then this book that I found unfathomably awful gets nominated for another, much-heralded literary prize and the frustration and incredulity rises in my throat.
The premise—‘At a suburban barbeque, a man slaps a child who is not his own’—is brilliant. It’s the execution with which I take issue. Following the tangential lives and knock-on effects of that split-second event on the adults at that barbeque, the book should prove an interesting, engaging read. Instead, I found it tedious, relentless, bland, and short on any redeeming features. So tedious, relentless, bland, and short on any redeeming features that I toyed seriously with contacting the publisher to ask for my money back.
The characters are, without exception, completely unlikeable. Yes, that might be the point, but while readers will forgive and even relate to flawed characters, those characters need to have some trait (one—c’mon, give me one) I can work with. Compounding that are the facts that the characters all feel exactly the same and that they don’t, quite simply, ring true.
To me, the female characters were completely, utterly, two-dimensionally unbelievable and the 17-year-old girl, in particular, felt so clunky and wide of the mark I actually scoffed and rolled my eyes while reading about her. And the drug taking by middle-aged Melbournites? Maybe I’m naïve or simply getting old, but meh, whatever, they felt lame and clichéd and something that belonged in another book. Say, for example, Tsiolkas’ break-out book Loaded, which I really enjoyed.
Perhaps the greatest frustration I felt was that while the premise promised so much, the book delivered so little. I made it to the end of The Slap through nothing less than sheer determination and an almost militaristic you-will-read-20-pages-a-day discipline. I wanted to have a complete sense of it in order to make informed comment at my bookclub and I also maintained hope that there would be some pay off for the pain. Instead—and spoiler alert for those of you not entirely put off reading the book by now—I was absolutely incensed because there was no prize for making it through. Nothing. Ever. Happened.
The fundamental problem is that I genuinely didn’t care whether it was right or wrong to slap a child that’s not your own. Because Tsiolkas never really got to the heart of the issue. I didn’t care about the minutiae of the completely heinous, inauthentic, interchangeable, and all-too-similar characters. I simply wanted to edit the book, saying, ‘Condense the characters, make them believable (even if you’re determined not to make them likeable), don’t make it so goddamned difficult for the reader to go on the journey with you, and above all make something happen.’ I mean, if you’re going to put a smoking gun in the room—spoiler alert again—at least have it go off. I practically begged aloud for the affair with the 17-year-old to explode. Instead it ended with an entirely lethargic and unrealistic nothingness with the wife never finding out.
The Allen & Unwin site boasts that ‘The bestselling cult author of Loaded and Dead Europe turns his blowtorch onto the belly of middle-class suburban Australia and its notions of child-rearing and acceptable behaviour.’ That’s the rub. I wanted blowtorch. I could have handled loathsome characters if I’d had some red-hot, explosive, contentious, moral and ethical boundary-pushing storylines and action. Instead, I got a book I didn’t like, with characters I liked even less, and a compelling premise that was oh-so-frustratingly never realised.
For the record, my sister loathed The Slap in equal measure and my friend Clare and I almost fell over ourselves in mutual, rapid-fire ‘Yes! And I couldn’t believe that…! And what about…!’ reasons for our indignation when we somehow stumbled across The Slap in general book conversation. So I’m not alone in my anti-Slap protestations, even if I’m the only one committing them to paper. Also for the record, the book has never, happily, been returned.