By Christos Tsiolkas
From the back cover: “At a suburban barbecue one afternoon. A man slaps an unruly boy. It’s a single act of violence. But this event reverberates through the lives of everyone who witnesses it happen.”
The structure of the book is intriguing, and really puts the focus on the “lives of everyone who witnesses it happen.” The book is not so much about that slap as it is about the lives of the people who were there, and the book is structured in eight long chapters that focus on one of the people who were there and how and why this event affects them. The eight chapters go into extensive detail and past histories of the characters from that character’s point of view, and the reader then links certain events together.
It’s a creative way to explore themes and stories that have been told millions of times before: marriage, family, friendships, growing up and getting old. There is also alot of exposition about race and class relations in Australia that I didn’t get very invested in, but is clearly something the author has alot to say about. It was when the stories got into the marriages and infidelity of the characters, especially in the last 100 pages, that I found the book most interesting.
There are four couples: Hector and Aisha, who are hosting the BBQ; Harry, who is Hector’s cousin and the one who slaps the child, and his wife Sandi; Rosie, who is a childhood friend of Aisha, and Gary, and their son Hugo, who is the boy who is slapped; Manolis and Koula, who are Hector’s parents; and Connie and Richie, who are just finishing high school and work with Aisha and babysit Hugo. There are other supporting characters, like Anouk, who is Aisha and Rosie’s friend from childhood, who is not married, but living with a man 20 years younger. If all these character’s are confusing, welcome to chapter 1. It takes a bit to get all the characters straight, and for the first three chapters, I had to keep looking back to be sure who was who, but as the book goes on, and the author’s structure of the story becomes clear, and the characters are so deeply developed, it works. The fact that I can remember these characters almost a week after having finished the book reflects the care and detail the author goes to in creating and describing their lives.
The morality and repurcussions of the slap are not really the focus of the book, though it is the focus of the lives of the people in the book. Instead, the slap, and the ensuing court case about it provide the central hub around which the author tells all the other stories about the lives of the characters. And what lives. In the first five pages we learn that Hector has had an affair with Connie, who is not only just 18, but works with his wife. Harry has two lovers, one that he supports in exchange for sex and drugs and another that works for him in his auto repair business and may be stealing from the company. Towards the end of the book, Aisha goes to a veternarian conference and has a one night stand with Art, who becomes very attached to her, a deeper connection, let’s say. Aisha then goes to meet Hector for a vacation in Bali, where she is wracked by the guilt of it all, only to discover that Hector is in an even worse state of mind. Essentially, he has a nervous breakdown, and the couple work through the ordeal without really resolving it.
As Hector is falling apart, and it’s clear that he wants to confess, saying, “I can’t continue to live like this,” Aisha asks if he wants a divorce, and when he says no, she breathes out, “experiencing a moment of blessed relief; and, for an instant that flashed by so quickly she barely registered it, she also felt a pang of regret. What couldn’t be, what you didn’t ever want to be, but in which you could not also help wondering what could have been.” She then goes out to get some food for their dinner and hears an American voice, and “gave herself over to fantasising. She was with Art, she had come to Montreal. He fell into her arms. He would divorce his wife and she would divorce Hector. She would learn French, they would have long weekends in New York City. Then she thought of her children and brushed the sweet, impossible fantasy aside. She picked up her order and walked back to the hotel.”
They talk for hours about their marriage, their children, the slap…and then Hector “confesses” that he was unfaithful with a 19 year old university student, and that they never had sex. This is a lie. He was fucking 18 year old Connie! Connie fell madly in love with him and her life is falling apart because he told her he couldn’t continue! Some of the things Hector confesses are true. He has been waking up at 3:17 every morning, start to shake and cry, “convinced that he was going to die – the beat of his heart seemed so tenuous, so irregular, his breath short, strained.” He starts to cry, “I’m scared, Aish, he shuddered, I’m so fucking scared.” He fucking should be. Aisha then confesses her affair with Art. “Not the truth, only the things that mattered.” And they decide that they don’t want to divorce, they want to fix what is wrong in their marriage, and, most of all, to stay together for the Children. Good luck!
The next day, though, Aisha is still processing her feelings. She is very disturbed by the age of Hector’s lover, (Again, he is not telling the truth…he is not even telling her what matters…it was Connie!) And as it’s clear that Hector is not fully forgiven, as Aisha really starts to question him now about his affair and the hows and whys and whens, Hector is still holding the unspeakable truth inside, and still breaking down in tears in the restaurant and still waking up at 3:17. He hasn’t come completely clean. But it doesn’t matter…Aisha is going to forgive him. She has to. “I will concede nothing else, she promised herself. Again she experienced a wave of weariness, a numbing heaviness to her neck and shoulders, to her very bones. This, finally, was love. This was its shape and essence, once the lust and ecstasy and danger and adventure had gone. Love, at its core, was negotiation, the surrender of two individulas to the messy, banal, domestic realities of sharing a life together. In this way, in love, she could secure a familiar happiness. She had to forego the risk of an unknown, most likely impossible, most probably unobtainable, alternative happiness. She coudn’t take the risk. She was too tired. And anyway, she scolded herself, the children…”
Once back home in Melbourne, Aisha just doesn’t feel the same. She tries, but things have changed. Aisha is the central character in the novel and the person most put in the middle of the moral morass of the slap. It happened in her house, she is part of Hector and Harry’s family, but she is also best friends with Rosie and truly believes the slap was wrong. But at the end of her chapter, she no longer is in the middle. She chooses a side and it leads to a stirring ending. Along with Hectors incomplete confession, this chapter sets up the dramatic ending of the story, and was obviously, for me, the most important chapter, dealing with quite relevant themes. At the end of the chapter, Aisha receives an email from Art, “I haven’t been able to forget you. Do you feel the same?”
For as much as I’ve written here, I’ve not even scratched the surface of everything that happens in the book, and I haven’t given anything away. It is an engrossing story, a bit rocky at first, but I couldn’t put it down at the end. As the past, present and future all come together for the characters, creeping up unseen for some of them, all too familiar and clear for others, I found myself relating to all of them…male, female, young, old, rich, poor, sober, addict, slapper, non-slapper. The author has made each character and their lives and views of the world distinct, detailed, understandable and relatable. Who they are, and why they do the things they do…somehow, makes sense. I wish someone would write a book like this about me so I might understand my own life a bit better.