This fourth novel from the Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas has created something of an international buzz, not least in winning the prestigious Commonwealth Writers' Prize. And it's attention that is deserved, because this ingenious and passionate book is a wonderful dissection of suburban Australian living, tackling issues of race, class and gender, but doing so with a keen eye on the personal.
The set-up is simple but brilliant. At a barbecue in a suburban Melbourne home, a four-year-old boy is slapped by a man who isn't his father. The fallout from this split-second incident is huge, and the novel comprises separate narratives from eight of those present, delving into their individual psychologies with an intensity that is gripping.
The barbecue is being hosted by Hector, a Greek-Australian, and his Indian wife, Aisha. The boy, Hugo, an unremitting brat, belongs to Aisha's friend, Rosie, and her white-trash alcoholic husband Gary. It is Hector's cousin, Harry, who slaps the boy when he has a tantrum and threatens Harry's son with a cricket bat.
The opening pages bristle with tension, as we see the event through the eyes of Hector, a disillusioned fortysomething on the brink of an affair. Afterwards, Hugo's over-protective and under-disciplining parents involve the police, and charges of assault are brought. The repercussions for friends and family are extreme, but utterly believable
Although the majority of the characters are middle-class and in their forties, there is a breadth of demographic which suggests Tsiolkas is attempting a psychological autopsy of an entire culture. As well as the Greek-Indian couple, there are British people, Muslims, white Australians and Aborigines, grand-fathers and teenagers, gay men and lesbians. Tsiolkas is clearly interested in how these disparate groups interact, and if this book is anything to go by, the answer is not very well. Prejudice, racism and homophobia are rife, and Tsiolkas writes with a refreshing lack of sentimentality. He also likes to throw the reader off-guard and subvert expectations, the obvious case being Harry, who initially seems justified in his slap but also turns out to be a misogynist, misanthrope and xenophobe.
The most successful narrative is delivered by Manolis, an elderly Greek migrant whose joyless marriage is held together by mutual adoration of grandchildren. When Manolis attends the funeral of an old friend, the book becomes a moving and poignant treatise on the changing nature of the world.
Perhaps inevitably, not all the narratives work quite as well – the two teenagers seem a little clichéd, while Rosie's story fails to explain her almost pathologically cloying attitude toward Hugo. But those minor quibbles aside, this is a beautifully structured and executed examination of the complexity of modern living; a compelling journey into the darkness of suburbia.
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