Christos Tsiolkas's fourth novel uses the familiar Australian template of a family barbecue in Melbourne's suburban hinterland to set the opening scene: husbands drink beer in the garden, wives slice vegetables in the kitchen, a secret mistress stalks the herbaceous borders and children play ballgames. Then, suddenly, bourgeois social propriety is punctured as an adult grasps a naughty child and slaps him in anger.
In a single unthinking moment, this act sets the scene for an ambitious state-of-the-nation novel of John Howard's post-9/11 Australia. The ensemble of inter-generational characters explore what it means to be Australian Greek, Australian Indian, aboriginal, poor white trash, closet gay teen, disappointed husband, unfulfilled wife, and other permutations that make up the nation's identity.
The initial slap creates an enormous narrative ripple effect after Hugo's over-protective, down-at-heel parents, Rosie and Gary, seek vengeance on the hot-headed Harry, an upwardly mobile Greek Australian who hit their child, by bringing police charges against him. Those who witness the event are divided in their loyalties and moral standpoints, causing fissures in marriages and friendships.
Yet Tsiolkas has not written a book about middle-class parenting alone. The initial "assault" (for some characters simply the "disciplining" of a spoilt child) gives the narrative its momentum but also leads to the telling of powerful stories of love, infidelity, pregnancy, abortion, unfulfilled desire and woeful marital compromise.
The privet-fenced "zombie suburbia", as one character delightfully classifies it, becomes the microcosm for Australia's good points and bad, its racial hostilities and its multicultural achievements. A Greek mother spits out her moral contempt of the "Australezi" while the Australezi vent their distrust of the "wogs and bogans" - yet their worlds are inextricably connected.
The structure is a simple one; each central character's consciousness is explored in eight separate chapters, yet Tsiolkas manages to add such winding complexities to each of these inner portraits – which might have spiralled out of control in the hands of a less deft writer - that the end result is dazzling, Tsiolkas, also a scriptwriter, manages to blend the novel's depth with soap-opera twists and turns.
Sometimes he teases out inner lives with great pathos: the story of Richie, a teenager tormented by his sexuality, is full of humanity. Most of the time, his register is one of stinging satire. What is clearly being sent up is the Desperate Housewives demographic of bronzed-bodied mothers and wayward husbands with unruly libidos/drink habits/mistresses. His cynicism does not extend to the younger generation, quietly appalled by the untruths told and hypocrisies committed by adults around them.
The story pivots around Aisha and Hector, whose marriage the reader is nudged into thinking is perhaps the book's only fulfilled one, solid enough to withstand mid-life sexual temptation. So the rug is whisked from under our feet when Aisha's inner narrative reveals an alarming, shallow sensibility that underpins this "perfect" suburban union. After Hector tearfully confesses his unfaithfulness to her, she coolly ponders her options: "She couldn't leave him because her love was bound up with his beauty – she loved being next to him, adored being the most attractive couple in the room, couldn't let that go."
The Slap's success – it become an international bestseller and won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize - has divided some critics, who have variously compared Tsiolkas's prose to Mills & Boon (largely for its hammed-up sex scenes), Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe. Whatever the verdict, his remarkable narrative fluidity proves that a fabulous page-turner can also contain great emotional power and intelligence.