Barracuda – Christos Tsiolkas

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.

Atlantic Books, 2014, trade paperback, 528 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

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?

17 Comments

Filed under Atlantic Books, Books of 2014, Christos Tsiolkas, Review

17 responses to “Barracuda – Christos Tsiolkas

  1. This was recommended to me by Viv Groskop but because I watched The Slap and didn’t enjoy it, she did say I then might not like this, though it does sound compelling!

  2. I was interested in this when it was first mentioned towards the end of last year. Then reviews have been mixed and it put me off again. However, your review’s really made me want to give it a go. I love reading about unlikeable characters and I’m ‘obsessed’ (so I’ve been told) with class, so the inclusion of both, the interesting structure and the multi-layered themes sound just my sort of thing.

  3. I thought The Slap was brilliant, so I’ll probably end up reading this one, based mostly on your review here by the way, one . TBR Triple Dog Dare is over. I’ll have to see if this one is out in paperback in the States yet.

  4. David

    I thought ‘Barracuda’ was brilliant, Simon, easily one of my favourite reads of 2013, and for all the reasons you outline in your review. Like you, I raced through it and loved that tide-like structure with one stream moving forward and one back towards each other and then crossing. I also thought it featured some really brave writing: I am seldom shocked by books but this featured one ‘did he really just write THAT?’ moment where I was completely stopped in my tracks, but the great thing about it is that it isn’t for shock value – it really makes you look into the darker parts of your mind and realise that yes, sometimes we do think things that are “unthinkable”. Challenging, confronting, powerful, but also a really enjoyable read? – that’s impressive. I really must get around to reading ‘The Slap’ soon.

    Oh, and I’m not into sports either but I do find I always really like novels about sport – Chad Harbach’s ‘The Art of Fielding’ about baseball, Richard Wagamese’s ‘Indian Horse’ and Lynn Coady’s ‘The Antagonist’ both about ice hockey… I even bought a copy of David Peace’s ‘Red or Dead’ though haven’t worked up the courage to try it yet (700+ pages or repetitive obsessively detailed writing about football… hmm, not so sure). Perhaps because none of them are ever really about sport; sport is just a useful vehicle to explore more universal themes about striving to attain something and usually failing.

  5. It seems so blindingly obvious to me that you don’t have to like the characters in a book (or a film or a play or a painting) that I am always amazed when people comment that it is an issue for them! A very compelling review as always! Thank you.

  6. I hated The Slap. I hated it so much that I abandoned it and I never abandon books! This sounds like a better read though.

  7. I’ve definitely been a bit wary of this book because of the subject matter – the synopsis just doesn’t appeal to me. But your review and the other I’ve read have been so tantalising that I might give it a try on my Kindle.

  8. Sharkell

    I read this book last year and loved it as much as you did. Christos Tsiolkas has put it all together in this book, as you say, mixing class and racism and self image and sexuality and relationships all in one book. I did like The Slap slightly better but this is well worth reading.

  9. I’m waiting for this one to show up in my mailbox. I’m going to participate in an Australian reading challenge this year and I want to read this one. I read The Slap but felt there was too much cursing and the characters were pathetic. Be that as it may I was immediately drawn to Barracuda. I wish it would get here already!:/

  10. Kate (Sydney cousin)

    Simon, what a great review. I read Barracuda late last year and really think you are spot on with your thoughts. Its not a book to be taken lightly, and you don’t have to particularly like the characters, but it is a book that exposes a part of the Australian sporting culture that is usually idolised but here it is dissected in all its brutality and reality.

  11. I disliked The Slap because I felt that all of the voices of the different narrators were essentially the same, which might have been intentional and a comment on today’s world for all I knew, but it annoyed me. I wasn’t hugely keen on the graphic bits in that, so I think I’ll give this one a miss, as it sounds more violent than I thought it was (and that’s good, that I know, so don’t worry you’ve put me off another book!!). It’s a shame, as I like sports books!

  12. How has everyone read this? It was only published last week? Well, I loved The Slap and now I’m 200 pages into this and I love it. Will read your review, Simon, after I’ve finished it.

    • kimbofo

      Simon, it was published in Australia last year, so has been around for awhile on that side of the planet. It was published in the UK last week.

  13. Really interesting to read what you made of Barracuda! I found it quite radically different from The Slap, (which I enjoyed reading even more, probably), though though they both centre around a violent domestic incident.

  14. Pingback: Unlikeable Characters; What’s Not To Like? | Savidge Reads

  15. kimbofo

    Agree with your thoughts, Simon. This is such a hugely powerful in-your-face book. I hate swimming and am not much into sport, but this isn’t a book about sport — it’s about chasing dreams, trying to be perfect and then figuring out what to do when you become disillusioned or fail. And, as you point out, it’s also about race and class and social mobility and prejudices and redemption and sexuality. Indeed, let’s just say it’s about LIFE! I loved it.

  16. I was up until after 2 every morning finishing this novel. I only switched the light off when I could no longer hold the book up. Which means that I loved it. Very easy to read, but in no way easy reading. Full of pain and failure, regret and sadness. Growing pains and growing up. Living with the past and living with the future. Home, family, friends. Love and, of course, hate, especially self-hatred. So many ideas and themes. Highly recommended. (And I loved the Slap, too).

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