Book Review: The Slap

By Christos Tsiolkas

Happy World Book Day! Blind date with a book. A small brown tag, a brown ribbon around a brown paper bag.

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.

Venus and the Moon

The beautiful goddess of love
And the master of ocean tides
Meet in an early summer sky.
Everything blurs.
It's so hard to see. Clearly.
Gravity pulls.
A connection builds.

The crescent moon, waxing, master of ocean tides, a fingernail in the sky. Like an eye, open wide, gazing at distant Venus, the silver shimmering goddess of love.

Distant orbits of celestial bodies read for meaning and metaphor and signs of devine destiny to explain our lives.

Why didn't we follow the signs? Let the stars and constellations guide our lives. It must mean something that I'm a Gemini.

Sad, stupid moon. We are both but stones, floating in fixed orbits, reflecting light from the sun. It's Her light that makes us stars. Look to Her and find your way. Look away. Let Venus be the goddess of love. In somebody else's sky.

Sun and stars set. They'll come around again. We can't change our orbits, but we can change our selves. Be more than a stone reflecting light, inspire it in others and do what's right.

Venus, you're the goddess of love, and what a curse that must be. Love is beautiful misery, exciting hope, hearts and desire, then bittersweet pain, too, suffering and loss. Doubt and resignation as much as devotion and joy. You, goddess of this, know this. Understand this deeply. Others must learn.

The barely enlightened crescent moon sets. Venus, wonderous beauty, awaits the next.

In the forest

in the rain walking through the forest
these are the trees I see
the tallest fir tree in the world outside the bedroom window
of the little boy on Boxwood Ave
the three palm trees I named after my children for some silly reason
seen from the sunny balcony above the pool
the gloomy swamp trees covered in Spanish moss along the Peace River in Florida where I almost drowned
the vibrant green palm trees being blown sideways in a torrential tropical storm seen from that beachfront villa
in Treasure Beach Jamaica
wondering where my sister could be
the massive giant redwoods on the north california coast
in the picture I look like a child
on a mountain bike in Utah ripping around a corner and there
on the trail under the canopy of a giant i don't know what tree
was a giant bird or buzzard bigger than my bike
sitting on a rock on the side of Red Mountain in Manitou Springs
first hearing and then seeing the wind roar through the valley below like a train as the trees shook and bent
and the wet heavy snow blew off the branches
the white bark and golden leaves of the aspen trees
along a river i fished in Vail
the strange trees in the Valencia riverbed with huge thorns
on the trunk and that tree in Viveros where we laid in the grass
the pink purple flowers of the arbol de amor on our street
the lone twisted olive tree in the middle of a vineyard i just passed
in the rain walking through the forest

My thoughts of trees and forests also brought this Greek myth to mind.

Butterfly III

A cold cloudy day
Hiding in the bottom of
A beer can again

My despondancy
Gaining weight each sleepless night
Wage war on myself

Fight to find the light
Run uphill through the cold fog
Wind song in tree leaves

Attuned to a soul
My butterfly comes again
A dream floating past

I missed you my friend
Dance with me now on this path
Forgive my failures

Fly into the new
Never underestimate
The strength of your wings

Writing a haiku poem. Verses in five-seven-five. Just making it up as I go along. A first draft, no editing or anything else that a real poet might do. I wonder if Basho did. I discovered Basho in Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which is too much of a book for me to write a review about, but I do recommend it.

And here are some Basho haiku’s to enjoy.

I think Basho may have approved of my “make it up as I go along” method. “When composing a verse let there not be a hair’s breath separating your mind from what you write; composition of a poem must be done in an instant, like a woodcutter felling a huge tree or a swordsman leaping at a dangerous enemy.” Thanks, Basho!

Butterfly II

Have you forgotten what we were like then
when we were still first rate
and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth

it's no use worrying about Time
but we did have a few tricks up our sleeves
and turned some sharp corners

the whole pasture looked like our meal
we didn't need speedometers
we could manage cocktails out of ice and water

I wouldn't want to be faster
or greener than now if you were with me O you
were the best of all my days
- Frank O'Hara

It was Frank O’Hara’s birthday on March 27. I like his style.

Today, running again. And the butterfly again. Just at the end of the run, on a narrow dirt path, as I was thinking of the “paths of hope” that refugees and other lost souls follow, the butterfly surprised me, as she was right there in the path and took off just as I passed, but flew along the path in front of me and landed again. I stopped running and watched. Always so facinated by the butterfly. Ephemeral beauty in transformation. She flew again, but just a few meters, and again, landed in the path. I picked some flowers and slowly approached. This time, she didn’t take off, and this surprised me. I got closer and closer. Even putting the flowers just in front of her face, hoping she’d decide to crawl onto the bouquet, but instead she just fluttered a few feet away and landed again. This time I sat down next to her and I could see why she wasn’t flying away. Her wing, her left wing, was broken. In my first post, I wrote about snatching a butterfly, pinching its wings between my thumb and finger. The shame and fear at what I had done, not even sure what I was trying to do except hold a butterfly. Well, this could simply not be the same butterfly. But, yet, the broken wing looked exactly to me as if someone had pinched it between their thumb and finger and the bottom part had ripped off. The shape of the tear where the bottom part of the wing used to be was just that shape. I was stunned. And scared. And sincerely thinking, Could this be the same butterfly? She would fly, flutter away, but it seemed, because of the broken wing, she could only go a few meters high, and a few meters away. And I would follow her. Get closer to her as she rested on the path of hope, and then she’d take off again. Twice, she flew right at me, and I would quickly dodge out of the way, not sure if she was attacking or just desperately confused, or both. She started to fly back up the path, and I kept following. When she landed, I could see her struggling, the wings falling to the ground. I thought of running home to get a glass or something to capture her in. I wished I had my phone camera with me, something to document what was clearly a sign. But, instead I just sat by her side, wondering what had happened, what was going to happen. Would a bird take her? Or some other insects? How do butterflies die? I tried again to guide her off the path, into the flowering plants, but she seemed to prefer the sun warmed path. A place for hopeful respite. I thought of this lyric from a Pearl Jam song called 7 o’clock:

“Caught the butterfly, broke its wing then put it on display
Was stripped of all its beauty once it could not fly high away”

I watched this butterfly for a long, long time. I followed her along that path when she fluttered away, and sat with her when she landed, trying to decide what to do. Finally…

I stood up, raised my foot, and crushed her under my shoe.