This novel, winner of a few ‘best book’ prizes in 2009, is a contemporaneous picture of middle class suburban Australia, full of desperately unlike-able characters. I was impressed at how the author managed to make me feel at once completely at home with the setting and the average-ness of the characters’ lives while at the same time feeling lucky that I wasn’t related to or friends with anyone remotely like any of them. Despite the awful characters, or maybe because of them, I actually really liked this book, and I was surprised when looking up other reviews to find that so many people felt the complete opposite.
The setting is suburban Melbourne, with the story kicked off by a backyard barbecue where friends and family are perturbed by the behaviour of a young child who seems to lack any age appropriate social skills. Finally pushed past his tipping point, one of the dads picks up and slaps the child when his own son is almost clocked with a cricket bat. The child’s mum orders her partner to call the police and press charges, thus setting of a chain of events and dividing the group into two camps – ‘for’ and ‘against’ the slap.
Eight of the central characters get a chapter each, with the story being told from their point of view. The timeline doesn’t jump around with the characters though – the events are recounted chronologically throughout the book even when the person changes with each chapter. I haven’t read a book set out like this before and I found it was a great way to captivate interest. With each chapter, inner monologue (and at least one terrible secret) reveal the characters’ true nature. While I would hate to spend time in real life with any of these people, I was captivated by them, and I can’t figure out why. Perhaps it’s the same reason I can’t stop listening to true crime podcasts – I know it’s terrible – or the same reason people can’t look away from a car crash. There is some kind of morbid fascination with hearing about the lives and minds of people that are just so vastly different from anything I could imagine for myself.
There’s no twist or ‘big ending’ but the conclusion was still satisfactory, and like all good books, left me with a feeling that I had just been part of another world. This is the second book I’ve read by Christos Tsiolkas and I’m still a big fan, so now I’m off to reserve another of his works from my local library.