Barracuda, the latest offering from Christos Tsiolkas, (author of bestseller The Slap) is cleverly written. The problem is that it’s so clever, the cleverness distracted me from the story, and detracted from the character development.
Barracuda is the story of Australian Danny Kelly, a boy who can swim. Talent-spotted at a club swim-meet, he is catapulted out of his working class existence into the world of an exclusive private boys’ school, on a swimming scholarship. But the book opens years later in Glasgow, with a Dan who does not swim, and tells people he can’t. The chapters alternate from 1994 moving forward, and a couple of decades later, moving back. In the moving-forward chapters we follow Danny as he trains to be the fastest and the best; in the moving-backwards chapters he no longer swims, and as the storylines converge they suggest that there is some sort of huge event that is the catalyst for Danny’s change from champion-swimmer-in-training to non-swimmer.
The tension builds well as the storylines move together in time, but when the event finally happened I found it to be a bit of a non-event. Rather than one definitive moment, it is a series of smaller events, though traumatic in varying degrees, which lead to Danny’s change in status. I found it anti-climactic after the build, and not entirely believable.
As well as playing with time sequence, Tsiolkas plays with perspective. Danny (who post-swimming prefers “Dan”) speaks in some chapters in first person; in others his story is told in third person. I couldn’t quite work out the reason for or pattern behind the changes in perspective, and once again, when I started to notice it, it became distracting.
There are some interesting messages in Barracuda about identity, family, loyalty, values and class. The book’s messages are not clichéd or forced, nor does it try to offer answers, only perspectives. Some of the characters were very interesting – I particularly liked the friendships between Danny and his childhood friend Demet, and between Danny and his college friend Luke. The interplays between the ‘golden boys’ of the swim team at college and their coach are also well drawn and insightful. I also liked the fact that Danny’s sexuality (he is gay) was just an aspect of his character and not a dominating theme of the book.
My favourite moment in the book, which I think is a defining moment for Danny, is when, after years of completely avoiding computers, he finally types his name into Google. Rather than his perceived failure and shame being revealed in the results in front of him, it is worse – there is nothing about him at all. “At that moment he realised that it hadn’t all been about being better and faster and stronger; that hadn’t been all he wanted. It had also been to make a mark… to be a name. There was no mark and there never would be. No one knew his name.” (p 450)
For me, the ‘cleverness’ that permeates this book is its ultimate downfall. However, it is an easy and interesting summer read which will no doubt appeal particularly to anyone who has been involved with competitive sport or with an interest in Australian society and politics.
Reviewed by Renee Boyer-Willisson
by Christos Tsiolkas
Published by Allen & Unwin