Tuskar Rock, £12.99. Order at the discounted price of£11.69 inc. p&p from independent.co.uk/bookshop or call 0843 0600 030

Barracuda, By Christos Tsiolkas: Book review - a novel about a competitive swimmer's torments that misses the mark

 

No one could accuse Christos Tsiolkas of lacking ambition. His last novel, the hugely successful The Slap, had eight narrators and built a story of modern multicultural Australian life around one relatively small domestic incident.

Barracuda takes the story of a young sporting hero and turns it upside down. Danny Kelly, the novel's protagonist, and occasional narrator, is a superbly talented teenage swimmer from a working-class immigrant background. He has won a scholarship to an elite school referred to throughout the novel as Cunts College. There he endures snobbery and prejudice while at home his father, an old-fashioned lefty, is contemptuous of the world in which his son finds himself.

None of this matters to Danny quite as much as swimming and winning his races. Tsiolkas is brilliant at describing the physicality of sport, the pitiless grip of competitiveness and, over the first 200 or so pages of Barracuda, the novel follows a relatively conventional route. Then, in a key international race, Danny comes fifth. His reaction – blubbing, swearing and having to be tranquillised and carried off – is not exactly in the best spirit of honourable defeat. "He's going to be ashamed of this moment for the rest of his life."

And so he is. We follow that shame in a helter-skelter ride to humiliation, violence, prison and beyond. In his own eyes, Danny has become that unacceptable thing, a loser. Describing the decline and fall of a would-be super-jock, Tsiolkas takes on some meaty themes: society's obsessive competitiveness, a teenage boy coming to terms with his homosexuality, snobbery and prejudice, the smugness of liberal Australia, the challenge of living a good life.

As with The Slap, one event propels an eventful story of contemporary expectation, fallibility and moral choice. Barracuda works strenuously for its effects. It is a novel with much shouting and agonising and grand set-pieces, but the harder it tries, the less convincing it becomes. Its key plot point, Danny's sudden decline, seems a bit odd: even for a teenager, winning at the top level in sport involves a level of perseverance and self-delusion.

There is always a reason for defeat, always another race. Few sportsmen collapse so totally after one defeat.

That implausibility would matter less if the character of Danny were more endearing and complex. There is something uneasy about the way Tsiolkas describes his protagonist's feelings, often telling us about them rather than allowing us to see for ourselves. While Danny is swimming, that matters little but, as he falls apart, it becomes increasingly difficult to sympathise with him. He is not only a pain to those around him, but also on the page. His emotions are overblown and confused – a homosexual theme develops and then peters out – and often seem described, rather than felt.

This uncertainty of tone infects the writing. Danny, a great admirer of Graham Greene, dislikes contemporary writers – "He found their worlds too insular, their style too self-conscious and ironic" – but there is more than a hint of self-consciousness in Tsiolkas's own style. It is one thing, for example, to switch from third-person to first-person narrator, but when tenses repeatedly change from past to present, then back again to past, frequently in the same paragraph, it seems affected and pointless, a device used for its own sake.

A stylistic clunkiness afflicts the novel, particularly at key moments. Some unhappy insights might be excused by Australian English being lost in translation ("They'd given each other the shits, they would argue incessantly") but others are simply hurried and careless.

Emotional indicators are invariably intestinal: Danny's stomach crashes down to his feet at one point; at another, in the pit of his stomach the familiar feeling of humiliation starts to bite. Surprisingly, the supporting characters, with the exception of Danny's resolutely bloody-minded father, fail to come to life.

No doubt Barracuda will sell in airports around the world, and may appeal to readers who like their blockbuster fiction delivered with a smattering of moral seriousness. All the same, for a writer as fearless as Tsiolkas, Barracuda reads like a missed opportunity. Its sincere intentions cannot mask its clumsiness as a novel.

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police