Barracuda, by Christos Tsiolkas

Purchase at The Book Depository

Purchased at The Book Depository

The defining moment in Danny Kelly’s life comes on his very first day at Cunt’s College in Melbourne. No, that is not the real name of the prep school, but it is what Danny calls it. He comes from working class, immigrant stock (his hair-stylist mother is Greek, his truck-driving dad has an Irish mother and Scottish father) and it is only because of his swimming ability that he has won a scholarship to the upper-class school.

The rich boys at his first swimming practice have been mocking Danny’s “loose synthetic bathers”:

They were all wearing shiny new Speedos, the brand name marked in yellow across their arses. Danny’s swimmers were from Forges — there was no way his mum was going to spend half a day’s pay on a piece of lycra. And good on her. Good on her, but he still felt like shit.

The Coach keeps Danny back after that first day of practice:

‘Why do you take their shit?’

You could hear his accent in the way he pronounced the word, ‘chit’.

Danny shrugged. ‘Dunno’.

‘Son, always answer back when you receive an insult. Do it straight away. Even if there’s a chance there was nothing behind it, take back control, answer them back. An insult is an attack. You must counter it. You understand?’

It is February, 1994 when Danny gets that advice and he will live by it for the rest of his life. The Coach has seen him swim before (that’s how Danny came by the scholarship) and knows he is a rare talent. It won’t take long before Danny ranks at the top of the Cunts College team — and even the rich boys have to grant the “Barracuda” their respect. And the Coach has never trained an Olympic swimmer.

Danny soon has a life goal. After he wins the Australian championship, he’ll move on to the Pan-Pacific and then the Commonwealth Games. And he will win gold for Australia at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. It gives nothing away to say that one of the lessons of Barracuda is that dreams are easy to create and can just as easily be shattered.

That summarizes one of the two narrative threads in Barracuda. We know from the start of the novel when author Tsiolkas introduces the second thread that that dream has not come to pass.

In this thread (set some time after 2000) we meet Danny in Glasgow, searching for a scarf that he wants to take to his great-aunt Rosemary whom he is about to visit in Edinburgh. We also learn quickly that Danny is gay, but his relationship with his partner, Clyde, is somewhat rocky. And the main reason it is rocky is that Danny is homesick for Australia.

Homesickness, I am discovering, is not a matter of climate or landscape; it does not descend on you from unfamiliar architecture. Homesickness hits hardest in the middle of a crowd in a large, alien city. Oh, how I miss the Australian face.

Barracuda is a longish novel (513 pages in my version, although the type is a decent size, the spacing generous and the narrative quickly paced) but that summary of the two threads pretty much defines the book — it is a story of the trials and tribulations that happen on the road from A at the prep school to B, the young adult Danny in Glasgow, desperate to get back to Australia.

Tsiolkas attracted a lot of attention with his last novel, The Slap, (shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and IMPAC, winner of the Commonwealth Prize and longlisted for the 2010 Booker) and for good reason. Another longish book, it took an apparently mundane backyard barbeque incident (the “slap” of the title) and turned it into several hundred pages of consequences that took us inside Australian society today. (It has also been turned into an excellent television mini-series that is worth hunting down if you aren’t up to reading the book.)

Barracuda is at its best when Tsiolkas is exploring those themes. Those of us who live in the Old Dominions are well aware of the stories of second-generation immigrants like Danny — he may have Greek, Irish and Scot’s blood in his veins, but he is a living example of the “new” Australia. The cold shoulders he experiences at school and later are familiar territory as Australia (and Canada for that matter) moves into the 21st century and Barracuda features a wealth of sub-plots and characters which develop that part of the story.

While I loved that aspect of the book, I have to confess that the two principle themes wore thin before I reached the halfway point. Danny is not an uninteresting character, but he is not a particularly deep one — and the “chip-on-his-shoulder” device becomes entirely too familiar long before the end of the novel is in sight. As well, the present tense thread of the story lacks the depth and appeal of Danny’s student days — two-thread novels require the author to keep both of them equally interesting, I’m afraid, and Tsiolkas did not do that in this book.

Despite those quibbles, Barracuda is a worthwhile read. The author has an eye for cinematic qualities (I wouldn’t be surprised to see this one show up as a tv mini-series as well) and his understanding of the challenges of multi-cultural Australia adds a layer of depth to the novel, just as it did in The Slap. I don’t think this one will do nearly as well in the prize wars as The Slap did but you can’t hit for six with every ball (that was my Canadian attempt at a cricket reference).

2014 kimbofoI have had Barracuda on hand for some months, but saved reading it so I could include it in Kimbofo’s Australia and New Zealand Literature Month project. If you click here it will take you to her site and a host of links to reviews of fiction from the Antipodes (25 at last count) and numerous sites with even more Aussie and Kiwi titles. It is a great project to acquaint those of us in the rest of the world with the excellent writing that is going on there — and Tsiolkas is a worthy example. While the month is coming to a close, I still intend to get to a New Zealand example, Charlotte Grimshaw’s Soon, so stay tuned.

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17 Responses to “Barracuda, by Christos Tsiolkas”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    Thanks Kevin, I have this one on the watch list. I watched The Slap, btw and really enjoyed it. Speaking of Aussie telly, have you seen The Doctor Blake Mysteries? (they just caught my eye)

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      We thought the television version of The Slap was very well done — I liked the book, but I thought it did a good job of adding another dimension. And, as a North American, I appreciated seeing some Aussie territory.

      The Doctor Blake Mysteries are new to me — I’ll check them out. I’ll serve back a Belgium/Dutch recommendation: Salamander (just released in America by MHZ Networks) is one of the best mini-series we have ever watched..

  2. writereads Says:

    Great review, as always.I have wanted to read The Slap for some time now. As you say, Tsiolkas seems to have great themes to his books.
    I’m still going to try and get to A or NZ book this month – but it’s looking pretty dicey :) -Tania

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Set The Slap as a summer project read — it is the kind of book that allows for 30 minutes of reading and then being set aside for a while. Perfect for the cottage.

  3. David Says:

    I really must get around to reading ‘The Slap’ since I’ve noticed reviewers who’ve read that one have been less enthusiastic about ‘Barracuda’. For me, coming to it as my first experience of Tsiolkas, I have to say I was gripped by it (for such a long book it absolutely flies by) – surprising as it is at times an uncomfortable read. It isn’t often I’m shocked by a piece of fiction but some of the thoughts Tsiolkas put in Danny’s head really had me doing a double-take. But I liked that: the way he created a character that often you could sympathize with but didn’t shy away from really exploring the darkest recesses of his psyche.
    I also enjoyed those two tide-like narrative streams and thought that was quite deftly handled, though I agree the present thread isn’t quite as strong as the school days one.

    Oh, and ‘Salamander': how far into that are you? I thought it started really well, but ended up being so bad it was funny (I laughed my way through most of the final episode)!

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      One of the unusual things about Tsiolkas (in both this book and The Slap) is the way that his fast-paced narrative suddenly takes a turn with a quite shocking development. I regard that as a positive but I know some readers of The Slap found it offensive. And there are times in this book when he does come very close to the line.

      One reason why The Slap was better for me (at least in memory) is that he keeps five or six narrative streams going there — and I find all of them were interesting.

      We have watched all of Salamander and, while it did stretch things in the later episodes, quite enjoyed it throughout. Part of the appeal, I’ll admit, was hearing three languages — I only speak English but I could at least recognize the other two.

  4. kimbofo Says:

    I like your cricket reference :-)

    And I agree with your thoughts on this one. As much as I enjoyed this book (as David points out above for such a chunkster it absolutely flies by), I don’t think it was quite as strong as The Slap. However, having talked to Brits who’ve read the book, many feel that Barracuda is more “accessible” and likeable than his earlier novel, perhaps because the language isn’t quite as confronting. I still think Barracuda is pretty raw and in-your-face, but I like the way Tsiolkas pokes a little hole in the Australian obsession with sport and tackles the class divide — both big themes but handled in quite a deft way.

    Thanks again for the link back to ANZ Lit Month — I’ve had a few clicks come my way from it, which is wonderful.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      We might have greater mobility between the classes in Australia and Canada than in the U.S. or U.K., but that does not mean that barriers don’t exist. I think that was the element in the “school” thread of the story that had the most impact for me. Tsiolkas language can get pretty raw at times (take Cunts College for a starter), but I don’t think he abuses that — like some of the dramatic plot developments, he uses it to both good and fair effect.

  5. Colette Jones Says:

    I am tempted to read this as I am hearing praise from people who didn’t like The Slap very much. It sounds like it zips along, so possible Booker contender? Oh, wrong year. :)

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Actually, I think it is Booker eligible — it was published in Australia in 2013, but the earliest UK date I can find is February this year.

      My impression is that it provokes an even more divided response than The Slap did. And with the new rules for the Booker, I am more at sea than ever on what books might make the long list. With so many more books now eligible, I suspect from now on jury “character” for each year is going to be the primary factor.

      • Colette Jones Says:

        I think it would be this year if submitted, but I was attempting a joke, referring to a different year’s set of judges, those with the “zip along” criteria. Maybe I should have said “readable”.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Ouch. Sorry I missed the joke (which is actually quite good — although I am sure this one is too long for that year’s jury). And I probably would have missed it with “readable” as well. I have been pretty successful at putting that year’s jury’s thoughts completely out of my mind.

  6. james b chester Says:

    I will have to get this one. Even with the reservations you have about Barracuda, I thought The Slap was so good that I’ll read whatever the author comes up with next. He has earned it as far as I’m concerned. Thanks for bringing this one to my attention.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      As I think the comments show, the two novels do have some things in common — I just found that The Slap had more appeal with its broader approach and greater number of central characters.

  7. whisperinggums Says:

    Oh, I was away at the end of May and missed this one come through Kevin. I reviewed it back in February after my reading group did it. Some of my group preferred this to The slap, and others were vice versa. One strong theme that you haven’t talked about – not being critical because the book covers a lot and you can’t to it all – is that of how to be a good man. The issue comes up many times through the book and is what, in the end, I think Danny feels should be his main goal. Not being the biggest, best, strongest but being a good man. For that reason, I liked the book a lot.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I would agree that a constant theme of the book involves Danny striving to be “good” — and discovering, often painfully, that his idea of just what defines “good” needs to be adjusted.

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