A soap opera in print

2010-08-18 00:00

I WAS interested to read this book, as it received a lot of publicity in the author’s native Australia. It won last year’s Commonwealth Writers’ prize. It has been longlisted for the Man Booker prize and inevitably carries the words “international bestseller­”­­ on the cover. Perhaps that should be construed as a warning.

The story is narrated by a number of those who are witnesses to the central event — a suburban barbecue at which a bad tempered adult slaps a brattish three-year-old who is about to clobber his son with a cricket bat. Stroppy little Hugo is the son of feckless parents, who, partly to appease some of their own resentments, take the hitter to court.

The story runs from the slap to a kind of conclusion, some months down the road. The book explores a variety of views and shows the concerns of a number of disparate adults and adolescents in a society where few people’s roots run deep, or start from the same place.

There is a teenage boy struggling with his sexuality; a clever teenage girl struggling with her sexual fantasies; several adults whose main struggle seems to be with anger management; others for whom the problem is commitment and a Greek-born grandfather who is struggling in a society where he will forever be an alien. And all the time, in their drug and alcohol-fuelled haze, if it moves, they’ll bonk it.

In fact, what we have here is soap opera, and the characterisation is on that level, which is the book’s weakness. We never really care enough about the people. The slapping issue is fading into the past, but you know that the next crisis for this horrible lot is just around the corner. Tsiolkas shows a society flawed to its core, where an unpleasant kind of political correctness papers feebly over the cracks. His Australia sounds like a place to be avoided.

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