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Staying afloat.

November 17, 2013

In 2008, Australian author Christos Tsiolkas divided readers with his Commonwealth Writers’ Prize-winning novel The Slap (later turned into a successful ABC TV miniseries), an unflattering exploration of suburban Melbourne that exposed the moral ambiguities of modern family life through the eyes of eight characters present at a barbecue where a man slaps someone else’s child. While some considered its protagonists grotesque and caricatured, others found its portrayal of ordinary Australian lives refreshingly honest; Tsiolkas doesn’t shy away from using his fiction to pose difficult questions about how we live today.

His latest novel, Barracuda, returns to similar territory, although it’s a more focused character study than The Slap and deals more explicitly with the question of class. We’re back in the suburbs of Melbourne, where, in 1994, 14-year-old Danny Kelly secures a scholarship to a private school on the basis of his exceptional swimming talent. Danny’s determined to win Olympic gold one day, and although he resents the privilege of his new surrounds, with its front gate ‘that looked like it should have belonged to a mansion from the movies, a mansion with a thousand rooms and with butlers and maids and ghosts’, his drive to succeed keeps him focused. Eventually, he falls in with the cool rich kids—the ‘golden boys’—who christen Danny ‘barracuda’ on the basis of his tough attitude and single-minded desire to be ‘the fastest, the strongest and the best’.

But wanting something badly enough is no guarantee you’ll get it; when Danny fails to achieve his dream and the Olympics come to Sydney in 2000, he commits a terrible act that will change his life forever and set him on an entirely different path to the one he’s imagined for so long.

Tsiolkas shifts his narrative back and forth in time: chapters alternate between the young Danny and his progression through high school and escalating swimming success and the Danny of today, a quiet and inward-focused man who eschews modern technology (he doesn’t own a computer) and works as a carer for people with disabilities; when we first meet this Danny, we discover that he no longer swims, and the reasons for this are gradually revealed as the narrative progresses. While the younger Danny’s chapters move forward in time, the older Danny’s chapters mostly move backwards, taking us back through his adult years to reveal how his experiences have shaped the man he is now.

Tsiolkas is fond of incorporating big social issues in his fiction: his characters argue about familiar topics that include racism, refugees, and the rules and regulations that govern contemporary Australian life. But what makes Barracuda such an engaging novel is its sympathetic (but uncompromising) exploration of what Danny’s ambition costs him and how he deals with the fallout of a single violent act. The novel is an astute character study that also raises pertinent questions about how we define success and failure and how we reconceptualise our identity when the future we once envisaged for ourselves all but disappears.

Danny’s story is also a reminder of how readily Australia glorifies sport (and sporting success), and the often grim flipside of the intense national spirit and pride that accompanies major sporting events and typifies our adulation of successful athletes. To say that the younger Danny is difficult to like is an understatement: he’s a surly, self-absorbed, angry young man whose entire reason for being becomes predicated on the need to win. Danny’s parents face their own struggles as they try to foster Danny’s talent without fracturing the family dynamic, and Tsiolkas captures this with sensitivity: Danny’s father Neal is a proudly working class Scotsman who has difficulty accepting how selfish Danny has become in his urge to be the best, while his Greek mother happily rises at 4 am each morning to drive Danny to the pool for training, unwittingly neglecting her younger daughter in the process.

The older Danny, however, is an almost entirely different man, and one still trying to find his place in the world. He doesn’t own a computer, loves nothing more than losing himself in novels and enjoys silence, concluding that ‘loneliness could be found in conversation, it lurked in words’. Danny has to grow up the hard way, and Tsiolkas skilfully gives us a full and sometimes ugly portrait of a man who must re-establish his identity and learn to accept his past and present.

Barracuda does falter slightly in its final third: once we’ve learned of the young Danny’s misdeed, the novel feels a little directionless, and we’re given several chapters of minor domestic drama that feel a little bit like padding. Still, Tsiolkas does a fine job of showing us how Danny evolves, and how his struggle to be the best gradually transforms into a much harder struggle to overcome his own history and be a good man: ‘He couldn’t think how anyone but himself could be the hero of his own life, but he knew that he wasn’t a hero’.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 18, 2013 3:14 am

    Miss Brill,

    Barracuda seems to suffer from the lack of a hook (ironically). Certainly in comparison with The Slap, it’s a bit of a directionless idea, as you found in the final third. The evolution of a human being is inherently worthy and interesting, and class issues are worth exploring; indeed, put together these things seem to have more substance than the personality-based ramifications of disciplining someone else’s badly-behaved child. And yet it’s hard to see this one making it to television (except on the basis of it being by Tsolkias). Second (and later) novels are on my mind lately, and so often they seem both more intellectually ambitious and less well directed than first novels. Are stories like this just harder (too hard?) to tell compellingly?

    Does that matter?

    • November 27, 2013 12:01 am

      Interesting point, David…I don’t know whether stories like this really are harder to tell or whether the difficulty lies in the manner of telling them. I think this is Tsiolkas’s fifth novel (I could be wrong…I know he definitely published at least two before The Slap, though) and I haven’t read any of his pre-Slap work, so it’d be interesting to see how it compares to his later novels.

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