Book of the Week: Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

 

We’re both islands, but they are far more deeply into swimming Down Under than the Brits. Think sunshine, beaches, the outdoor lifestyle, more sunshine. Think Bondi, and then think Bognor.

Christos Tsiolkas has written this novel about an aspiring Olympic swimmer and probably only an Australian would have attempted it.

It arrives in the churning wake of his massive bestseller The Slap, about the eponymous blow delivered at a family barbie, but this is a very different kettle of aquatic creatures, more personal and less trashy, though it does draw on the same well of dwelling among the second- generation immigrant communities in Melbourne.

Danny Kelly is half-Celtic, half-Greek, and wins a sports scholarship to a private school populated by Aussie “golden boys”. It won’t be giving the game away to say that his dreams of winning gold at the Sydney Olympics sink without trace.

The journey he takes is harrowing and heartfelt, the teenager’s single-minded ambition comes at a terrible cost to his mind and his family, and the agony continues long into adulthood. After the fortnight he’s had, you can’t help thinking of Ian Thorpe, who was the youngest swimmer to compete for Australia at the age of 14 but is still trying to outswim the sharks at 31.

Even the title calls to mind his nickname, “Thorpedo”. Even so, Thorpe has fistfuls of medals, which only serves to emphasise the plight of the thousands who don’t make it. And Tsiolkas, in his uncompromising way, is just right to tell their story.

As with The Slap, no one comes out of the experience bathed in glory. If you’ve been watching England’s cricketers get pummelled this winter, here’s an enjoyable tale of Aussie sporting failure. If you want to take the plunge into swimming, however, there are more uplifting tomes.

Published in paperback by Atlantic, £12.99

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