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
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

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.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders