An altercation between two children tears apart a group of adult friends in Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap, set in middle-class Melbourne in the same string of neighborhoods chronicled by Tom Perrotta and John Updike. Eight people present when the argument tips over to violence take turns narrating its aftermath in this striking introduction to a promising Australian novelist.
Out of obligation more than joy, Hector and Aisha sleepwalk through plans for a barbecue they hope will discharge all outstanding obligations to family and friends in one fell swoop. The occasion unfolds without note until Hugo, the 4-year-old son of Aisha’s friend Rosie, threatens Hector’s nephew with a cricket bat, and his father swoops in and slaps Hugo. The party breaks up, but a police report is filed, and as each side gears up for a hearing, the hosts are caught between longtime friends, both of whom, in their accounting, have stepped out of line.
The Slap dedicates itself to exposing the cracks in the mortar of the modern family dwelling from the beginning—part of Hector’s personal preparation for the party includes picking up some Valium from Aisha’s assistant, with whom he is contemplating having an affair—while minimizing the melodrama that could develop from such a deep dive. The first chapters feel overstuffed with troubled people, but there’s power in Tsiolkas’ tactic of introducing personalities as part of a crowd, then calling them out to air their private grievances in the course of advancing the plot. Not every voice rings out clearly—apart from her reveries about life as a Perth surfer girl, the victim’s mother’s chapter falls flat—but each stands out singularly, from the Greek patriarch furious at the indignity of his old age to the teenager falling in love for the first time.
Tsiolkas’ characters are fiercely protective of their personal vices, some even railing against the “nanny state” proscribing their smoking or drinking, without recognizing when it’s upon them to play the nannies. (Disputed among them, for example, is whether Hugo, whom some find overprotected and impudent, might have deserved the punishment he was handed.) Having assembled their clan of diverse, intellectual, well-traveled friends over their private misgivings, Hector and Aisha instantly feel the impact of its collapse, even as they try to make amends. The Slap mows familiar ground and dislodges some nasty treasures, but unspools as an unsettling parable of responsibility.