All Danny has wanted is to win a swimming Olympic gold medal. His precocious talent has won him a scholarship at an elite private Melbourne school, entering the hallowed grounds of privilege. But his working-class, mixed Greek-Australian background creates a tension as competition proves to be fierce, both at school and beyond.
Author of best-selling The Slap, a similar tale of failed suburban living, Christos Tsiolkas tenderly explores obsession, ambition, privilege and sense of belonging in a novel that pits Danny against friends, family, lovers as his self-focussed determination puts him at odds with the world around him.
A young adult with a lover living in Glasgow, a teenage boy obsessed with the pool and the transcendence it offers him, an adult refusing to swim, an idolised son and older brother, Danny has obviously won and lost. But to what extent and why? With its fractured time narrative, Tsiolkas unfolds and peels back Danny’s story, a tale of psychotic ambition and bad behaviour that leads to a demise in everything held dear by family and friends. Whether it’s his selfish abuse of his mother, disregard of long-standing friendship or behaviour that ends in physical violence, Danny’s is a total downward spiral.
Through a long and painful journey, Dan eventually comes to a sense of redemption (ironically, in part through the reading of Dostoyevsky). As a care worker for men with brain-acquired injuries, he has dependents: a reconnection with family along with a distancing of the painful memories as Danny on a private education scholarship facilitates an acceptance of the past and present. But Tsiolkas is also questioning the price paid for a win-at-all-costs culture. A young Danny’s obsession is stoked by the adults around him; the psycho swimming champ at school earns the nickname ‘barracuda’.
It’s a powerful and thought-provoking novel. Admittedly, Danny’s behaviour at times slips into boorishness as Tsiolkas’ repetition of tale grates. But an adult Dan reflects on his own behaviour and earlier drive, looking for that redemption of disappointment, anger and violence. It’s a tale of identity politics – sexual, social, financial, cultural, personal: through Danny/Dan, Tsiolkas tells it masterfully.