Jane Smiley enjoys an energetic exposé of the tensions in multicultural Australia

Perhaps the most Australian moment in Christos Tsiolkas’s fine novel comes a third of the way in, when 18-year-old Connie, who is living with her aunt Tasha because her father and mother have died of Aids, puts her arms around her aunt and thanks her for her kindness and care. “Thank you for looking after me,” she says. “Thank you for putting your life on hold.” Tasha reacts with profane fury – “That was a fucking horrible thing to say” – and stomps off to the lounge to watch TV. How’s that for touchy?

But all the characters in The Slap are touchy, and that seems to be part of Tsiolkas’s point – in the Australia of the 21st century, multiculturalism has won. People of all ages, all ethnic groups and all political persuasions are interconnected and intermarried, and, at least some of the time, they just can’t handle it. The Slap, which was first published in Australia in 2008 and has since won the Commonwealth prize, is a “way we live now” novel, and it is riveting from beginning to end.

The premise is this: an obnoxious child does something faintly threatening at a family barbecue, and the father of the threatened child smacks him. Everyone is so upset by this that the barbecue breaks up in a hurry, and within a day, the parents of the slapped child have the slapper arrested. But Tsiolkas’s purpose is not to explore the idea of child abuse; it is to use the family and friendship connections originally limned at the barbecue to look at how love and background come together, and whether outer peace necessarily reflects inner peace.

The party-givers are Hector and Aisha. He is Greek, she is Indian; he is a bureaucrat, she is a vet. The slapper is his hot-headed cousin, Harry. The parents of the child are Anglo-Saxon Australians of a late-hippy persuasion – Rosie is an old friend of Aisha’s from Perth and is, by the way, still breastfeeding her three-year-old child (who is indeed obnoxious). Hector happens to be sleeping with Connie, who works in Aisha’s office, and Connie is friends with Richie, who is a just-emerging gay student in his last year of school, waiting to see where he will get to go to university, and, therefore, what life he will be allowed to have. Hector’s Greek father, Manolis, feels that the kid deserved the slap, and Hector’s mother, Koula, has never been able even to bring herself to say her daughter-in-law’s name. Aisha’s and Rosie’s other old friend, Anouk, is French, Jewish, childless, and unable to understand what the big deal is. As the trial approaches, furious Rosie and defensive Harry put more and more pressure on Aisha and Hector.

But the great thing about The Slap is that it cannot be neatly summarised. Tsiolkas uses his premise as a guy-line to stabilise his larger structure, but his real talent is for exploring the inner lives of his eight primary characters, four women and four men, ranging in age from 18 to 70. And each of these characters is a sharp observer of those around him or her, so many more lives are illuminated as well.

The novel’s forward energy is unexpectedly overwhelming, and it’s not because the court case is important or even potentially life-changing. (Many things happen in the lives of the characters that have nothing to do with the case and are far more interesting.) But the case provides an occasion to explore modern Australian life as an exercise in liberalism. No one is evil, no one deserves to be hit, or even judged negatively. Everyone means well, and everyone is doing the best he or she can; but then again, everyone is awfully angry, and the best way to have a peaceful relationship is, it appears, not to get married. In the end, Hector cannot give up the possibility of adultery, and Aisha has to accept that (Aisha has her own secrets). Even so, they are happier than Harry’s traditionally wedded parents. But there is to be no retreat into separate ethnic enclaves, either. Connie and Richie, the teenagers, point themselves hopefully into the future at the end; surely, though, this is the only novel I have ever read in which the happy ending involves adult-sanctioned use of mind-altering substances as a mode of celebration.

Jane Smiley’s latest novel, Private Life, is published by Faber.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds