I was intrigued by the previews for the US TV series, The Slap, so when I saw the novel on Audible, I put it in my cart. I don’t know what I expected, but it was not what I got.
A backyard cookout is the occasion of the title incident. The toddler-aged son of a troubled couple (he is an alcoholic, she is searching for identity and still breastfeeding her nearly-four-year-old child) is out of control and seemingly without boundaries. His behavior is annoying all of the guests, but when he threatens to hit the child of another guest, that child’s father steps in, speaks to the child, and then administers a slap. Half of the guests seem relieved and supportive and the other half seem horrified. Under and over those feelings are affairs, in-law tensions, ethnic tensions, youthful hurts. What seems to be a happy middle-class group of people is revealed to be a hot mess. The host’s husband is having an affair with her teenage, orphaned assistant whose best friend is young closeted gay man. The assailant is the cousin of the host’s husband and a man whose violent, philandering father seems to have left his imprint on his son. Both come from Greek immigrants who made their lives in Australia after fleeing from a chaotic post-war Greece. Although immigrants themselves, their parents hold prejudices against Muslims (Muzzies) and the hostess, their daughter-in-law, “The Indian,” whose parents were more recent Indian immigrants.
The assailant has made it in middle-class terms. He has a beautiful, expensive showcase home and a beautiful showcase wife. Neither satisfies him. His cousin, married to “The Indian” is a handsome man and a secure government employee married to a beautiful successful women who owns her own veterinary clinic. His children are well-behaved and attractive. He, too, is unsatisfied and seeks validation from other women.
“The Indian’s” best friends are the lost mother of the slapped toddler and a single, successful screenwriter for a popular soap opera who, shortly after the slap, quits her job to write the novel she has been talking about for years and aborts the child conceived with her much younger boy-toy actor boyfriend.
No one is satisfied with their success. No one is family-focused. Children and spouses are accessories. Christos is sickened by while maybe empathizing with the lost middle class, but his view is very masculine-centered. Of the five central female figures, one lies about being molested, one sucks up to her daughter-in-law in person while verbally abusing her behind her back, another aborts a child conceived with a man she likes if not loves because it will ruin her life options, another uses her child to mask her own lack of purpose and identity and the misery in her marriage, and the last cheats on her husband while away on business and stays with him in large part because they look good together. While the men are mostly not admirable (the philandering cousins provide many coarse-language scenes that reflect a horrible view of women as sexual conquests), the saving grace is Manolo, “The Indian’s” father-in-law, who genuinely loves his daughter-in-law and is crushed when he realizes she does not classify him as real family, and who reflects on the sacrifices he and his wife made for their children and questions what those sacrifices gained. He sees his son and nephew more clearly than anyone in the novel sees themselves.
If you Google The Slap or read the Amazon reviews, you will quickly find that this is a polarizing book. This book was not what I expected and it was not a perfect work of art, but it did provide a window onto one view of middle-class Australian society and its divisions, angsts, and failures and, in some places, it made me think. I did not enjoy listening to this book (which likely was influenced by the seemingly relentless pop-up coarse and completely male-focused sex scenes that were themselves like periodic slaps), but it is not a book I will forget. And that is something.