Australia's child abuse parable


The Slap (M). Jonathan LaPaglia, Sophie Okonedo, Melissa George, Essie Davis, Alex Dimitriades, Sophie Lowe, Blake Davis. ABC1, 60 minutes, eight episodes

'I've heard it's rubbish,' says a fellow-traveller on a suburban train. 'What do you think?'

'Have you reached the chapter about the old man?' asks a waiter in an inner-city café. I tell him it's the next chapter I'll read. 'You'll love it,' he says. 'Amazing how he gets inside the characters' heads.'

'Isn't it wonderful?' This spoken by a face that materialises from amid the post-football throng outside Melbourne's Etihad Stadium. 'I can't wait for the TV series!'

The simple act of reading Christos Tsiolkas' The Slap in public seems to be a provocation, or at least an invitation for unsolicited opinions from strangers. The very definition of a conversation starter.

Both the book and the faithfully rendered and impeccably cast ABC1 mini-series boast the tagline 'Whose side are you on?'. Indeed, the nature and structure seem custom-built to diversify opinion. The ABC's multi-platform approach even invites viewers to register their allegiances via an online poll.

'Whose side are you on?' is, to some extent, a furphy. Each chapter, and each episode of the series, is told from the perspective of a different character. It is impossible to either wholly sympathise with, or wholly condemn, any character.

'I'd have hit him too,' is the verdict of one member of my book club, referring to the titular event — the corporal punishment, at a suburban backyard barbecue, of a recalcitrant child by a man who is not his father. None of us disagrees, per se.

But neither is anything in The Slap so black and white. The victim of 'the slap', three-year-old Hugo, has, with his precocious behaviour, damaged property and presented a physical threat to the other children at the barbecue. All this while his parents, Gary and Rosie, sit by largely passively.

We can't entirely blame Harry for intervening. But we may question his violent means. More so later, in the chapter/episode titled 'Harry', where we come to appreciate that violence simmers constantly within him. Dimitriades' stilly fearsome bearing perfectly embodies Harry's muted rage.

This is typical of The Slap's narrative approach. Each chapter not only furthers the plot, but constitutes a character study, which presents a different perspective not just on the slap itself, but on a swathe of interrelated social and moral issues that bustle beneath The Slap's soap-opera surface.

Tsiolkas keeps the moral target moving. Arguably, The Slap is designed more for analysis than entertainment. It seems at times as if Tsiolkas was working from a checklist designed to get his book onto high school and university reading lists. 

Its proliferation of issues includes multiculturalism — Harry and his cousin Hector (LaPaglia) are Greek Australian; Hector's wife Aisha is Indian in the book, Mauritian in the series (actress Okonedo has Nigerian heritage); one character is an Aboriginal Muslim convert; Anouk (Davis) is Jewish.

Race, though, is almost incidental compared with The Slap's ruminations on gender, sexuality, age, friendship, coming of age, fidelity and class. In this regard The Slap stands as a kind of epic parable of middle class Australia.

Anouk is a screenwriter in a male-dominated TV industry, and considering aborting an unplanned pregnancy. Harry is a self-made man who built himself a luxurious lifestyle on the foundations of his blue-collar beginnings; by pointed contrast, Gary and Rosie are determinedly Bohemian.

The chapters examining the youthful experiences of teenagers Connie and Richie (Lowe and Davis) are among the most authentic and affecting. They are adolescents for whom morality and justice are but aspects of the fraught task of trying to establish self-identity on the verge of adulthood.

That waiter I mentioned earlier was right, too, about the chapter dealing with Hector's elderly father Manolis. It powerfully evokes the inner life of an elderly migrant traversing his 'old neighbourhood', which has irrevocably changed, and reflecting on his own societal displacement by both race and age.

It's early to make a definitive judgment of the TV series (episode four of eight, 'Connie', screens tonight) but so far it has captured the depth and drama of the source material. At times it has improved upon it, dramatising aspects of characters' lives which were revealed in the novel through introspection. This heightens the dramatic impact but makes it no easier to take sides.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, The Slap, Christos Tsiolkas



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Existing comments

Very carefully written, Tim. What you are saying and I agree with you is that for once the television series is better than the book, probably because the book was written with a television series in mind. You can get away with cliched characters, cliched events, cliched conflict in a television series but not in a book. And, honours/awards notwithstanding, it is not a great book.
Frank | 27 October 2011

Absolutely agree with you, Frank. You also can't take sides with the characters because you also cannot sympathise/emapthise with any of them. A failure of the writing, methinks. C'mon Tim, you gotta be a bit more honest in your critiques!
Barry Levy | 27 October 2011

I agree with Frank. I thought the book was awful and a real struggle to read - the author appeared to be trying to test readers or something equally dramatic, by making every single character unlikeable It has been so overrated, and trying to tie in the act of slapping the child could have just as easily been achieved by tying them together as friends. i lost the point of the book, especially as he made Harry an abusive, adulterous husband. I didn't feel challenged at all.
Lucy | 27 October 2011

It is certainly reasonable to air the opinion that one did not like the text(as the other commentators have done). As with all books/tv/movies it is entirely subjective and I for one don't feel the praise heaped upon this novel, or indeed the miniseries is unfounded. They are certainly not entirely likeable characters, and in the case of Harry, his violence and sadism is anything but likeable. But should we only commend literature/TV as good if the characters are actually morally good? As a study of the disaffected middle classes, those who seemingly have it all and yet cannot find peace, this excellent novel and TV series demonstrates great insight. Great review Tim.
Natalie | 01 November 2011


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