On a summer afternoon in suburban Melbourne, a group of friends and family gather with their assorted children for a barbecue. The host Hector is of Greek descent, his wife Aisha is Indian, and their guests are a mix that probably represents Australia in the 21st century – white, aborigine, Muslim, Jewish, gay, straight, wealthy and working class, young and old. Three-year-old Hugo has been behaving obnoxiously all afternoon, but his parents keep making excuses for him rather than correcting him. Finally, wielding a cricket bat, he vaguely threatens nine-year-old Rocco, whereupon Rocco's father Harry, Hector's cousin, slaps him.
That's the starting point for The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, and the reverberations from that slap ripple through the entire story. Tsiolkas divides his book into eight sections, each one exploring the inner life of one of the characters from the party. Some of the storylines directly follow the effect of the slap – Hugo's parents press charges, family and friends are forced to take sides in the dispute, friendships are threatened. Others explore more personal stories – marriage and infidelity, mid-life crisis, the bonds of friendship, adolescent coming-of-age and dealing with the loss of aging friends. Through them Tsiolkas examines racism, homophobia and class prejudice without ever preaching or sentimentalizing.
Every time I thought he was headed for a stereotype he swerved from it to give a realistic but sympathetic view of a character. I found some stories more compelling than others (maybe I've just read too many coming of age tales?), but Tsiolkas does an admirable job of keeping all eight threads woven together. Starting with a single shocking act he paints a nuanced picture of a network of complex relationships.