Archive for the ‘Tsiolkas, Christos (2)’ Category

Barracuda, by Christos Tsiolkas

May 26, 2014

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.


The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas

April 10, 2010

Purchased at

For readers who pay attention to book prize competitions, The Slap is an interesting prospect. Christos Tsiolkas’ novel, first published in Australia in 2008, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and won the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. It is on this year’s IMPAC longlist. However, its UK publication did not occur until this spring, so it is one of those Commonwealth novels (like Yann Martel’s Life of Pi) that comes to its Man Booker Prize eligibility with some history.

Enough of prizes, what about the book? In a lengthy opening chapter, Tsiolkas introduces a dizzying cast of varied characters at a Melbourne barbeque. (If you are serious about the book, you might want to read this opening chapter twice — I did and found that to be very useful.) The barbeque is hosted by Hector (who is Greek and his parents are there), married to Aisha (she’s Indian) and includes an array of characters who capture the Australian version of multi-cultural experience. Anouk is Jewish, Bilal and Shamira have converted to Islam. And that is only a start.

The incident that will frame the book occurs during a children’s cricket game at the barbeque. Hugo, now approaching four but still nursing at the breast of his hippie mother, Rosie, throws a fit when he is lbw’d (while I know that means “leg before wicket”, I don’t know much more — Hugo knows even less). Hugo raises his cricket bat to strike another player who is both older and bigger. Hector’s cousin, Harry, intervenes:

“Let me go,” Hugo roared.

Harry set him on the ground. The boy’s face had gone dark with fury. He raised his foot and kicked wildly into Harry’s shin. The speed was coursing through Hector’s blood, the hairs on his neck were upright. He saw his cousin’s raised arm, it spliced the air, and then he saw the open palm descend and strike the boy. The slap seemed to echo. It cracked the twilight. The little boy looked up at the man in shock. There was a long silence. It was as if he could not comprehend what had just occurred, how the man’s action and the pain he was beginning to feel coincided. The silence broke, the boy’s face crumpled, and this time there was no wail: when the tears began to fall, they fell silently.

From this point on, The Slap moves into wide-screen novel territory. The challenge of building a 483-page novel on the basis of a slap delivered to a spoiled three-year-old at a barbeque, with no real injury resulting, is not one that many authors would choose to face. Tsiolkas makes that choice; the reader needs to follow him.

The remainder of the novel locates aspects of the fallout of the slap told from the point of view of seven different people who were there (Harry, Aisha, Anouk and others). Yes, they all have a point of view about the slap but the incident mainly serves to bring forward other aspects of their character and their lives, which is the way the author exploits his device. They are, for the most part, prosperous young adults living very well in a First World country, albeit a minor power. In North American terms, they are middle-class people facing both middle-class challenges and opportunities. The Slap produces a troubling diversion since Hugo’s hapless mother insists on criminal charges and his alcoholic father goes along — that means that many of these characters will have to emerge publicly with their opinion — but it is still a background irritant in most of their life stories.

The central characters do have overlapping parts of shared history, be it as friends, family, work colleagues or whatever. Tsiolkas is at his best when he explores the strength of the ties that those shared histories produce. Here is an example as Anouk, Aisha and Rosie, sitting in a bar, contemplate the conversion of Terry, an Aborigine, to becoming a Muslim and hooking up with Shamira, another convert:

Anouk lit another cigarette. “I’m not sure it takes any more courage for an Aborigine to become a Muslim than a white guy.”

Rosie shrugged. “I think in this world now it takes courage for anyone to call themselves a Muslim.”

“And Shamira? I guess she became a Muslim to marry Bilal.”

“No. That’s not it. She had already converted. They met at a mosque.”

“Really?” Anouk looked astonished. “What the fuck makes a yobbo chick like her become a Mussie?”

“She heard the call.”

“The what?”

That passage illustrates my frustration with The Slap. On the one hand, Tsiolkas has put together an interesting cast of “ordinary” people, located them in an intriguing world, parts of which I know well, parts not, and opened up an exploration of their life. On the other, to make his story work he often approaches melodrama (and yes, for this reader, descends into it). The conceit of basing the plot on the slap wears thin half way through the book, but his characters do their best to overcome that — and succeed more often than not.

Tsiolkas has a narrative style that well suits his approach. His writing is brisk; he has a flare for using detail to advantage and, for the most part, his characters do come to life. As a reader who does not know Melbourne at all, he also does a good job of creating an urban community — both the parts that are attractive and those that are not. (For a couple of views from readers who know Australia much better than I do check out Reading Matters and ANZ LitLovers.)

But, in the final analysis, a novel of this length needs to be more and that is where it failed for me. The literary tactic of using individual characters in succession to develop the story carries a lot of risk and for this reader did not succeed. The author needs to locate his most interesting personal stories at the end of that list; instead Tsiolkas opts for a couple of individuals who are peripheral to the main story lines. They offer some interesting observations, but the whole thread of the book tends to get lost.

Obviously, a couple of Prize juries have had a different assessment. And there is no doubt that The Slap is a very readable book; a worthy effort that I think could have been more.

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