Often it can be that the best books are those which are so well written and immersive that even though you think you might not like the book for its subject matter you enjoy it regardless, sometimes even wanting to know all about the subject matter that might have at some point made you roll your eyes. Christos Tsiolkas’ fifth book Barracuda is one such book. I am not really interested in sports and the idea of a book about any sport even swimming, despite having an almost-niece who is training to future Olympic swimming standards, turns me off. Yet for all 500 plus pages of Barracuda I was completely hooked and compelled along, so much so I ended up reading it in three or four sittings.
An initial description of Barracuda could simply be that it is a tale of an adolescent, Danny Kelly, who becomes one of the best swimmers in Australia (winning every race going and destined for the Sydney Olympics 2000) until suddenly he doesn’t. Once no longer the best so follows a very public fall from grace and the breakdown of Danny and who he believes he is which changes his life completely and Barracuda follows how he accepts this, or not as the case maybe. Failure isn’t an option until it becomes a reality. Yet Barracuda is so much more than that. It is a book about acceptance, pressure, class and I think at its heart belonging within your country, your family but most of all belonging within yourself.
He was kicking. Barracuda. Breathing in. Fierce. The water parted for him. Barracuda. Breathing out. Fast. The water shifted for him. He breathed in. Barracuda. The water obeyed him. Dangerous. He breathed out.
Tsiolkas does four pretty bloody marvellous things which make this such a compelling novel as we read on. Firstly, he has created an incredibly interesting, complex and often unlikeable but very readable character in Danny Kelly and as importantly those around him and their relationships with him. Secondly he has constructed a book with a mystery at its heart, as we know early on that Danny has been to jail and left Australia for Scotland, which we are tantalised by and dreading and feel the need to work out the nature of. (Unlike several blogs/broadsheet reviews I am not going to give away this mystery/event.) This is added to by the structure of the book, which flits about between a narrative from the past and a narrative further in the future (pre-awful event and post-awful event if you will), and the visceral prose which are the third master stroke. The fourth is that this is also a novel exposes the, often rather ugly, underbelly of a country and the walks of life who inhabit it be they poor; like the Kelly’s, or rich; like the people who also inhabit Cunt’s College where Danny has been given a scholarship to for his gift. It is really rather epic in its scope, though as I mentioned the 500 pages rush by.
As I mentioned I found Danny incredibly fascinating and disturbing to read, yet as you read on you may not empathise with Danny but you do get an understanding of him and the fact really he is a lost person in society, almost literally a fish out of water. He comes from a working class immigrant background, yet he is thrown into the world of the ‘golden boys and girls’ and their social circle and families. Alienating himself from his friends but also his family and the sacrifices they have to make for his training. Along with all this he is also coming to terms with his sexuality as his competitive nature with Martin Taylor also becomes an obsession and something of a crush. I should here say I admired the fact that there is no big ‘coming out scene’ or anything so obvious, in fact it is never really commented on once he has a partner or even a factor then, it simply isn’t the be all and end all of Danny’s life it is just another aspect for him to sort out which I liked the reality of.
What this all creates is a lack of belonging, someone who really is lost in almost all aspects of their world. A scary place to be for anyone let alone someone going through adolescence where let’s face it no one really feels like they belong in their own body. Interestingly body obsession (too much fat, too much hair) starts to take over Danny, not only in himself but how he feels about those around him The only place Dan Kelly feels any sense of belonging is in the water, yet we understand that Danny’s belief is if you are the best, the fastest, the strongest you don’t need to belong, you are perfection and everyone should want to belong to you, bow down to you or in some cases be scared of you. If you don’t, watch out.
In the change-rooms, no one would look at him. But no one dared to mock him, no one dared say anything to him. He could just hear the murmurings behind him and around him, sensed the whispers first take form in Luke’s astonished and admiring stare. He could hear the words, Jesus, that Danny Kelly they whispered, That Danny Kelly. He’s a psycho.
With all these themes, questions and thoughts Barracuda is not the easiest of reads. I don’t mean that the writing is too lofty, literary or complex, some of the language is just rather confronting, with racial and homophobic slang throughout. The structure of the book, with its sense of mystery, also throws you occasionally as though it alternates between past and almost present there is no direct chronology; you have to put everything together at the end. Those factors along with the graphic nature of some of the scenes and unlikeable nature of the characters (which are often all too realistic) may also put some readers off but I am not sure those are the readers that Tsiolkas is after really. I think he wants to write a book which challenges readers and rewards them hugely once they have finished, contemplated and thought about it all.
In fact books and their power and importance and how they should challenge us is also a theme in the book in a way. When Danny discovers literature, and a love of sorts, in prison he discovers Greene and ‘He understood the writer’s characters, sympathised with their weakness and cowardice, responded most to their refusal to find excuses for their failures.’ For me this is really what Christos Tsiolkas does with Barracuda. He takes a character who isn’t always likeable or reliable and who may be from the wrong side of the tracks, which most people like to hide away, and exposes them for the benefit of anyone who reads on, compellingly with warts and all. I admire Tsiolkas hugely for this novel and would highly recommend anyone who likes a read that provokes questions and disturbs – after all the best fiction should do that shouldn’t it and I think Barracuda is contemporary fiction at its finest.
For more insight into the book (if that review wasn’t long enough, ha, though I still don’t think I have done it justice) you can hear Christos and myself in conversation about Barracuda here. Who else has read it and what did you make of it? I am annoyed I didn’t review The Slap after I read it a few years ago, which other books of Tsiolkas’ would you recommend? What are your thoughts on confronting books and unlikeable, yet realistic, characters?