I read The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas last year and had mixed feelings about it – but I was
still keen to give this a go as I found him to be an interesting writer, and I liked the Australian setting of the previous book. This story is about Danny Kelly – a promising swimmer whose dreams to become an Olympic champion fail to come true…
The book has an unusual structure – the chapters alternate between first and third person narrative. The first person chapters start in the present day and work backwards, while the alternative third person chapters are dated, but start in the past and work forwards. This threatens to be highly confusing – but at first it worked well as it’s almost as if you are reading two different stories that you know will come together at some point. However I did find that I got confused about half way through the book when the two strands met in the middle and then carried on towards their destination – I had to stop quite a few times to get my bearings! But overall I think the structure worked and made the book interesting to read – you kind of know the story by half way through but the rest of the book fits in all the final pieces of the puzzle.
But of course at the centre of this novel is Danny – or Dan, or Barracuda as he is known at different stages of the book. He isn’t always the most pleasant of characters – he is driven by his swimming when he is young but this makes him selfish and cruel at times. But part of his character is borne out of the treatment he gets from other students at his private school to which he gets a scholarship simply on the basis of his swimming skills. He also has an interesting relationship with his father which kind of builds throughout the book.
The author also deals with other issues in the book, mainly race, identity and belonging, and his characters tell you a lot about Australian attitudes to race and identity. This adds another interesting element to the book.
I found this book intriguing and for me it was best read in very large chunks so you could keep up with where you were in the narrative. Despite many of the characters being unlikeable, and hard to relate to at times, I found the story really interesting and the turmoil that Dan goes through in the book is very well drawn. There aren’t any real twists or major shocks in the book, but I don’t think this detracts from the storyline.
On the downside, I did feel it was a bit longer than it needed to be, and the second half especially could have been pared down, and the narrative structure was a bit confusing at times, but I really enjoyed reading this book and was, in the main, gripped by it.
My rating: 9 out of 10