Good Neighbours?

Christos Tsiolkas takes a hard look at modern society in Australia in his latest book, The Slap.

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It could be a scene straight out of an Australian soap. Friends and family are gathered at Hector and Aisha's suburban barbecue in sunny Melbourne. The meat is sizzling on the grill, the kids are playing cricket as the adults look on, clutching their drinks. A split second later a misbehaving four- year-old boy is slapped by a man who isn't his father, and the party descends into a brawl. This simple event - and its repercussions - is the starting point for The Slap, Christos Tsiolkas' fourth book, which last year won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and is now enjoying huge acclaim on its worldwide release.

There's a slight groan when I tell Tsiolkas the fall-out from the barbecue reminds me of the famous melodramas of Ramsay Street in Neighbours or Summer Bay in Home and Away. But he's clued up enough to know that for many non-Australians the settings and set-ups of these fictional places are a frame of reference for how we think of that country. And he's not afraid to play with those ideas in The Slap: one of the eight characters the narrative develops through, Anouk, is not only a script writer for a popular soap, she's seeing one of the actors. "When I began writing, I was so keen to make sure it wasn't a soap opera," admits the 44-year-old Australian who's in dire need of coffee after a night celebrating the book's UK launch.

"But I didn't want to shy away from the themes of suburbia, and they are the themes of a show like Neighbours. So in the end I made a very conscious nod to the show with Anouk - I couldn't hide from the fact that it's the same kind of world. I'd like to think it looks like a very different Neighbours, though!" It certainly does. While soaps often do tackle difficult themes, the language here is unflinching, the themes of racism, prejudice, misogyny and class dissected in eye-watering, and sometimes violent detail.

There is a narrative drive of sorts - the parents of the slapped child are determined to take the perpetrator, Harry, to court, and The Slap investigates how that impacts on the friendship and family groups. But really, through the eyes of eight characters who all have a chapter each, Tsiolkas is more interested in painting a portrait of modern Australia which can be as shocking as it is touching.

Multiculturalism is dealt with particularly adroitly; everyone might be interconnected in the 21st cent ury, but there are still tensions. "This is a book about contemporary Australia," he agrees. "So the issues of race and identity were there when I was writing it, but I was actually more interested in the new middle class in Australia that's no longer traditionally WASP [White Anglo Saxon Protestant]. We're completely different; we're Greek and Italian and Arabic and Vietnamese and Chinese as much as we were Anglo-Celtic."

Perhaps, in a strange way, the fact that certain ethnic groups can be called "wogs" in the book without much offence being taken, could even suggest Australians are less stressed about multiculturalism than many other countries. "Well, I was talking to someone last night who described The Slap as multiculturalism without the political correctness, and I liked that. I am very much a product of this society - I'm not self-conscious writing about a marriage between an Indian Australian and a Greek Australian because that's the world I grew up in and live in.

"Yes there are conflicts and racism across the different communities, but the lines are now so blurred it's impossible to talk of one Greek Australian community or one Vietnamese Australian community." Tsiolkas, as his name suggests, grew up in a strongly Greek migrant family - it wasn't until he started school in Australia that he realised Australians spoke English. He thinks one of the strengths of the multicultural experience is that it percolates into the language. So just as the idea of the Great American Novel by the likes of Don DeLillo and Jonathan Franzen has been driven by the peculiarly American version of English, so Tsiolkas believes the Great Australian Novel can be written too. Has he written it?

"I can't answer that question," he laughs. "But I do think, for a long period of time now, Australian novelists haven't wanted to write the great Australian novel, they've wanted to write the great English, Irish or American novel. "We've been writing the historical novel, too, because of the really fractious colonial history of our country. Okay, there are really good, moral reasons for doing that but we've shied away from the contemporary novel, and I actually think political correctness is a big part of that.

"Also, most of us live in suburbia, which is not a sexy subject, is it? It's the antithesis of what artists are meant to represent. "Australia's a country dominated by the myth of the outback, where only five per cent of the population live. But I actually think a lot of the most interesting work coming out of this country is about the suburban experience, not only in terms of writing but in film and visual arts, too."

Tsiolkas can, alongside Steve Toltz (surprisingly but not undeservingly shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2008) count himself as being part of the new wave of Australian writers he speaks so enthusiastically about. Not least because, in narrating the story from eight different points of view and including everyone from a 17 to a 75- year-old, he's set himself a hellish and ambitious task: to make every character as authentic and true as the next. It doesn't always come off , though, Harry's chapter is straight out of a Sopranos script.

But there are some fascinating people in The Slap too; Harry's cousin Hector jeopardises his ridiculously settled midlife for no apparent reason, and the orphaned teenager with whom he has an affair ends up being more well-adjusted than most of the grown-ups. "Actually, the characters I felt closest to were the teenagers Richie and Connie and the old man Manolis, rather than the rest of the people who are generally my age," he admits. "I think that's because I think I'm a little ashamed of my generation - I think we've proved ourselves to be the most selfish in history, the way we squandered an amazing wealth and opportunity. I feel that very strongly.

"Manolis isn't completely likeable - he has some completely outrageous opinions and attitudes. But the notions he has concerning honour ... well, that way of existing in the world is something my generation completely lacks. We wouldn't even know how to speak about it." Tsiolkas thinks his interesting moral values - which are shot through the book without ever seeming preachy or heavy handed - may have had something to do with growing up as a child of a migrant.

"You see and recognise what your parents have done in order to give you this incredible opportunity in life," he says. Indeed, the experience of his childhood is why he felt completely comfortable writing about a convert to Islam or Connie's first love, a Muslim boy. "Look, I went to school with Greeks and Yugoslavs, Turks and Lebonese kids. Going into Muslim households wasn't foreign to me. This was an everyday version of Islam that wasn't fundamental in its outlook. So writing about this stuff wasn't a problem.

"The conversion I had to think more deeply about but to be honest, only because it was an Aboriginal character. But these conversions are happening in Australia, so why not write about them?" ? The Slap (Tuskar Rock) is out now