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The Slap (book review)

27 June 2012

The SlapThe Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Last week I was at the Joint Conference of academic societies in the field of Religion and Theology in Pietermaritzburg, and the theme of the Southern African Missiological Society’s track was Migration, mission and theological education. I bought this book to read in the evenings before going to sleep, and found that in several different ways it reflected the theme of the conference. It was largely concerned with migrants, and it made me think of migrants and migration.

The book also changes in character and direction, as the viewpoint character changes, so that one is never sure where it will end up until one actually reaches the end.

It is set in Melbourne, Australia, and it begins being seen through the eyes of the host at a suburban barbecue. One of the guests slaps an obstreperous child, whose parents accuse the man of child abuse and call the police. The people at the barbecue (braai) are in some ways a cosmopolitan bunch, representing various diasporas of immigrants to Australia. It seems horribly middle-class and suburban, and in some ways familiar, like a white-middle-class South African suburban braai. But it has overtones of My big fat Greek barbie. Many of the families are Greek immigrants, or children and grandchildren of Greek immigrants. And that is familiar too. The Greek diaspora in Australia is not all that different from the Greek diaspora in South Africa, or in North America, for that matter. If you change the accents, the film My big fat Greek wedding could easily have been set in South Africa, right down to the hair styles.

Most of the characters are “wogs”, which in Australia seems to refer mainly to people of Mediterranean ancestry. The Australian vocabulary takes some getting used to. There are also “bogans”, which the wogs, or these particular wogs, despise — being lower-middle-class Anglo-Australians with a penchant for kitsch. The South African equivalents were perhaps those referred to in Jeremy Taylor’s song The balld of the southern suburbs.

So there are all these Diaspora people, and that links up with our conference theme of migrants and migrations.

The story is told from the viewpoint of different characters, and their views and backgrounds are very different. Some are suburban housewives, some are their husbands, some are teenagers, one is an old man — My big fat Greek funeral. But the action moves forward, so the characters do not see the same events, but rather each stage of the story is seen through the eyes of a different character.

There are also rather disconcerthing gaps. The book goes into great detail about the sexual encounters and fantasies of the characters, almost a throwback to 1980 novels with their obligatory shag (which often seemed to be there only because the publishers demanded it), yet in these suburban families we are not told the ages of most of the children. The boy who was slapped was 3 going on 4. And the teenagers are 17 going on 18, but the other children’s ages are unstated, so when we are told of the parents contemplating their sons or daughters sleeping or playing DVDs, it is difficult to form a picture of the size of the child they are looking at – somewhere in the 5-12 age range, but children grow a lot between those ages. So at some points there seems to be too much detail, and at others too little.

The book makes one aware of the Greek, Arab, Indian, Vietnamese and other diasporas in Australia. And that inevitably makes me think of other things that are not mentioned explicitly in the book, but perhaps are part of the the background: the obsession of the Australian media with “suspected asylum seekers”, for example. But though it is not mentioned in the book, there is also a South African diaspora in Australia. That particular one wasn’t mentioned at all at the conference either, as far as I am aware — most of those at the conference were concerned with migrants coming to South Africa, rather than leaving it.

Never having been to Australia, I have no idea how accurately it reflects Australian suburban life, but, as portrayed in the book, it seemed rather empty to me. Like the old man in the story, who reflects on his life, and how he migrated to Australia from Greece, It makes me look back on my own life, and make comparisons. And the outstanding difference was the struggle against apartheid, which dominated the greater part of my life. There seems to have been nothing like that in Australia. Of course there has been evil, there have been bad things, but they seem so petty by comparison. The child abuse of a man slapping a child at a suburban barbecue pales in comparison with thousands of children suffering from kwashiorkor, marasmus, pellagra and other nutritional deficiencies.It all seems so banal that they have to take refuge in booze, drugs and adultery.

On finishing the book one thing is pretty clear to me: I won’t be packing for Perth any time soon.

And I still haven’t made my mind up about the book. In some ways I want to give it four stars, but in others two. I think I’ll compromise and give it three.

View all my reviews

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Alan permalink
    27 June 2012 5:45 pm

    I haven’t read the book, but I think I will.

    Australia never had an official apartheid, but the “White Australia Policy” was in effect for a few decades, with immigration of non-“whites” prohibited. Chinese were there already, the descendants of those who had come to search for gold. The aborigines were there too, of course, but tended to be confined to reservations or other rural areas. Some aboriginal children were taken from their parents and placed with white families.

    There was immigration from Rhodesia by whites, many of them seeking to escape the racial conflicts there.

    More recently there has been South African immigration, and some congregations of the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia now have Afrikaans services in addition to their English ones; I don’t think any still have Dutch services. (The [Christian — this word was added to the name much later] Reformed Churches of Australia resulted from post-WWII Dutch immigration, not only from the Netherlands but also from Indonesia: those from the Hervormde Kerk (the “state church”) tended to become Presbyterians, while many of those from the Gereformeerde Kerken — a 19th-Century conservative breakaway group — found the Presbyterian Church unsatisfactory and established separate “Reformed” congregations, the first being in Brisbane in — IIRC — 1952.)

    • 27 June 2012 6:50 pm

      Thanks for the explanation of the different Reformed churches in Australia. In some ways it is similar to what happened in South Africa, where there were three Dutch Reformed Churches, but under apartheid more were established for different racial groups.

  2. 28 June 2012 3:52 am

    Hi Steve,

    I haven’t read the book either. There was a television series which aired last year. I found the series quite tedious. There was only one episode I enjoyed and that was one which emphasised the Greek mother and father. I heaved a sigh of relief when it ended and the ABC could get on with something else.

    The Uniting Church in Australia – -was formed from an amalgamation of the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregationalist churches. Not all congregations of these denominations merged into the UCA, however the denomination with the largest number of stay-outers was the Presbyterian Church. Gradually, it was taken over by South African Dutch Reformed people and has become ultra conservative and refuses to ordain women anymore. I did hear of one female minister who remained and I don’t think her experience was a happy one. So perhaps these South Africans brought their religion but not Christianity!

    I don’t know about a South African diaspora from the Dutch Reformed tradition but there is a strong diaspora of South African Jews . A lot of them live around St Ives, a lovely posh leafy Upper North Shore suburb of Sydney. They have established themselves there with a synagogue and school.

    There is a significant Zimbabwean/Zambian (or should I say Rhodesian) diaspora. In fact, there’s one couple who live not far from me who used to have a farm in Zimbabwe. He fought for Ian Smith’s side. When I lived in Mount Isa (a significant copper mining town in north-west Queensland) in the 1970s/80s, Mount Isa Mines Limited did a big recruitment drive through South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. This scared me somewhat because Australia has enough racists of its own without taking on white racial baggage from elsewhere particularly if such people were to end up in the upper executive levels of the mining industry!

    The term ‘wog’ – which was almost universally applied in Australia in the 1940s and 1950s to Greeks and Italians – is now seldom heard – except that some of our comedians of the relevant ethnic extraction use it to describe themselves and have given us lots of wonderful laughs, usually along the sort of wog bogan line! I believe there is a reason why we no longer hear the term any more. Those Greeks and Italians were, more often than not, very successful. They made money. So success and money sort of made the term ‘wog’ redundant. And, of course, we found we loved their food – and we changed our eating habits!

    Could talk more about contemporary racism in Australia and asylum seekers – but this is enough for now.

    • 28 June 2012 5:42 am

      Thanks for the comments. I bought the book because I was browsing in a book shop looking for something to read in the evenings, having left behind the book I had meant to bring. I think I enjoyed it a lot more than I might otherwise have done because of the “migration” theme of the conference. The book seems to be embedded in Australian culture, so its good to have Australian views on it. We get lots of UK and American novels here, but very few Australian ones.

      “Wog” in Australia seems to be the equvalent of the people here who descrived themselves as HIP – Hellenic, Italian, Portuguese. I heard “wog” a lot in England 45 years ago, but with a different meaning. There it meant anyone who came from more than 10 miles south of where the speaker lived, so I, and a fellow-student from New Zealand, were uber-wogs.

  3. Alan permalink
    28 June 2012 5:50 am

    Miss Eagle:

    The “continuing Presbyterians” — the ones who stayed out of the Uniting Church — rejected the ordination of women long before the South African influx: amending their rules to prevent the ordination of women was one of the first things they did after the “theological liberals” left to join the Uniting Church.

  4. 28 June 2012 8:34 pm

    The book seemed quite preachy to me. Greeks are better than Bogans, and the name of the writer makes me question that. And- bogan criticises Greek for slapping his vile child, but gets his Bogan come-uppance. And Bogan’s wife, a loser, eventually loses her old friend. Possibly the emptiness comes from the author rather than the city. The TV series was broadcast in the UK too, but I did not watch it.


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