Christos Tsiolkas is gay, Australian, 44 years old. As far as I know, he has no children but his most recent novel, The Slap (Tuskar Rock), is the most profound book I have read in years on the indignities and satisfactions of family life. It is a rollicking tale filled with wisdom, told from the various perspectives of a wife-beating entrepreneur, an unmarried soap opera writer, a hippie mum, a Greek immigrant grandfather, a just-out-of-the-closet gay boy, a middle-aged married lothario, the teenage girl who loves him, and his beautiful, successful wife. It opens at a barbeque in suburban Melbourne. Handsome Hector loves his wife, loves his life, but is in the midst of a passionate if as yet unconsummated affair with the 18-year-old receptionist at his wife’s veterinary practice. So far, this isn’t a problem. The party, filled with old friends and relatives, is going well. The only fly in the ointment is Hugo, an obnoxious three-year-old, utterly spoiled by his alcoholic dad and earth-mother mum. When called out in a cricket game, Hugo pouts, screams, and threatens the older kids with a bat. One of the fathers reacts, grabs him, rips the bat from his hand, slaps his face. The child howls, shocked although not really hurt. His horrified parents, however, press assault charges on the other dad. The novel explores the reverberations of the slap. The guests have to choose sides. Some of the onlookers are horrified, scandalised, convinced nothing could be worse than hurting a child. Others think the kid deserved worse and blame his simpering parents. Some change their minds. Some pretend, just to keep the peace. Whatever their point of view, the author treats them with respect and grants them the dignity they deserve. I am making it sound like a worthy read for a book club, and the novel does examine fashionable topics including multiculturalism, tolerance, child-rearing strategies, class resentment, monogamy and infidelity. But what makes it special is the generosity of Tsiolkas’ vision. He accepts all his characters, he does not judge them, much. He understands why they make their choices, how life has made them who they are. He has sympathy for even the hate-filled alcoholic, for the boy who falsely accuses a man he desires of rape. Early in the novel, Anouk, a glamorous single woman having an affair with a man half her age, has to write a typical incest subplot for the soap opera she works for. She gives her characters a bit more complexity than her bosses desire and is ordered to rewrite. “Her treacherous, vengeful teenaged girl retreated back to being a damaged imbecile and the teacher a supportive drone, mouthing all the acceptable platitudes of victim rights and girl power. The only character she felt any affection for was the rapist father.” In this novel people smoke, do drugs, have affairs. They love their husbands and wives and still cheat on them. Parents realise their teenagers are going to take ecstasy and just tell them to be careful, kiss them on the cheek and give them money for the cab fare. Many of the reviews on Amazon found the characters unlikeable. I found them real. Tsiolkas understands the boredom and hypocrisy of family life. He also realises it’s the very best we’ve got. In the end family, and old friends, are all that give our life meaning. Too often we use morality as an excuse to feel superior to others. What Tsiolkas grasps is that true morality lies in treating others as we wish they would treat us. This is a grownup book, ultimately optimistic and very wise. It is Christos Tsiolkas’ fourth novel. I think I’ll be reading the other three.