During my recent travels Down Under I became acquainted with the work of Christos Tsiolkas. The Australian author’s latest novel The Slap was the winner of this year’s Australian Book Industry Awards and also the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. This is a book that has brought Tsiolkas to the mainstream, at least if the count of holidaymakers reading this by the poolside is anything to go by.
The Slap is a far more accessible novel than Tsiolkas’s previous work Dead Europe, published four years ago. Although very rewarding, Dead Europe is a dense, disturbing and meandering piece of fiction. I found it at times inpenetrable, reminding me of my recent encounters with Roberto Bolano and Jonathan Littell. There is also a supernatural thread which recalled to me the most difficult to digest of Neil Gaiman’s work, American Gods.
Dead Europe is part ghost story, part disturbing travelogue and part rumination on the nomadic nature of man. It follows Isaac, an Australian photographer of Greek descent, as he follows an uneasy path through Europe, one full of homosexual encounters and disturbing experiences in the dark corners of European cities. Isaac has a knack of stumbling into the underbelly of culture, and a fascinating backstory told in alternating chapters frames his plight brilliantly. Dead Europe is an extraordinary novel. It isn’t for the light hearted and I never felt comfortable with this book, but it is one I may challenge myself to read again.
But onto The Slap. It’s remarkable that the author of Dead Europe could also produce this, an apparently mainstream novel that nevertheless reveals a highly talented author. The Slap begins simply but slowly develops into an absorbing and mulitlayered work. During a suburban Australian barbecue a man hits a small child. Somebody else’s small child, and the fallout of the event provides a hook for Tsiolkas to explore class and status. The events that unfold are seen from the point of view of eight people present at the barbecue, and The Slap takes in different views of life ranging from a teenage boy discovering his sexuality to an elderly grandfather perplexed at the changing world before him. Impressively, Tsiolkas also appears at ease when writing from either a male of female perspective.
Christos Tsiolkas is a highly gifted writer. The Slap is an engaging entry into his world but be warned. Although it is vastly different to Dead Europe both novels succeed in shocking, both in language and sexual reference. His world is an adult one, and worryingly so.