Fiction - paperback; Tuskar Rock Press; 513 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas hit the big time with his best-selling novel The Slap in 2008. It won the ALS Gold Medal (2008), the Commonwealth Writers Prize Best Book (2009) and the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction (2009). It was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award (2009) and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize (2010). It was also adapted for television as an eight-part series (which, by the way, I highly recommend — by far the best thing on TV in 2011).
But while it won plenty of praise and sold by the truckload, it also attracted much controversy — critics complained about the language (too raw), the sex (too filthy) and the characters (unlikeable). Some — mainly British reviewers — claimed it was misogynistic. Me? I loved it. Which is why I was so looking forward to his new novel, Barracuda, which has just been published in the UK.
I'm pleased to say I wasn't disappointed. This is another highly readable, totally addictive, octane-fuelled story that addresses big themes — what it is to be good, what it is to be successful, love, redemption and social mobility — and isn't afraid to be in your face about it.
The story follows Danny Kelly, who acquires the nickname "Barracuda" because of his extraordinary talent in the swimming pool. This talent offers Danny the chance to escape his working class roots. Not only does it earn him a scholarship to a prestigious private school in Melbourne, if he works hard and dedicates himself to the sport, he could end up on the Australian swimming team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
But at his first big championship swim meet he blows it — and comes fifth. Where others might have learnt a valuable lesson and become even more determined to achieve their Olympic dream, Danny never quite recovers from the shock of losing. Even though he has the physical ability to be an elite swimmer, he lacks the emotional and psychological maturity to deal with this setback. And sadly, this sets in motion a whole chain of events which will haunt Danny for the rest of his life.
And I understand, I know, it is failure that is evil.
So I run, my strides enormous, not caring who I crash into, who I hurt. I run so fast that I am hurting the ground as I pound it. I run so fast that I am fire. But no matter how fast I run, the Devil is there beside me. The Devil is in me. I am a larva and that which is emerging is something vile, something uglier that what existed before.
Two narrative threads
When the story opens we meet Danny long after that swimming "failure". In fact, he's so loathe to remember his swimming past that he refuses to go near water. He's reinvented himself as a carer helping injured people during their rehabilitiation, and he's living on the other side of the world, in Glasgow, Scotland, with his male lover, Clyde. But Danny has a secret — and he knows that at some point he's going to have to come clean and tell his boyfriend because it could scupper his plan to stay in the UK permanently.
From there the book splits into two distinct narratives: one that moves backwards in time, tracing Danny's new life in Scotland to his time as a teenage swim sensation; and the other that moves forwards in time, following his story from teenage swim sensation to potential Scottish immigrant. It's a device that works well, because it provides light and shade to Danny's story — his successes and failures, his struggle to be good against his "natural" inclination to be bad — and lets you see what impact certain events have on his later life. And it also provides just the right amount of narrative tension to keep you moving the pages — what, for instance, is that secret he's so carefully guarding in Scotland? The shock of it, I must say, left me slightly stunned.
Indeed, there's many revelations in this book that left me stunned. It's a thought-provoking read — as ever, the language is raw and often crude (the nickname that Danny gives his college is but one example) and the sex is filthy (you have been warned) — but it explores so many interesting themes and issues that it's impossible not to like. It feels utterly contemporary, but by the same token, the story, of a boy from the wrong side of the tracks trying to cross over into a more affluent social class, could have been lifted from a 19th century novel.
Life in Australia
As an expat-Australian reading this book, I identified with so much of the social commentary, especially the no-holds barred criticisms of Australia, that I had to stop myself from underlining whole pages for fear I'd end up scribbling over the entire book. I particularly loved this passage, which comes out of the mouth of Clyde, a Scotsman who sums up life in Australia perfectly (forgive the cursive language, which is Tsiolkas' not mine):
"You all think you are so egalitarian, but you're the most status-seeking people I've met. You call yourselves laid back but you're angry and resentful all the time. You say there is no class system here, but you're terrified of the poor, and you say you're anti-authoritarian but all there is here is rules, from the moment I fucken landed here, rules about doing this and not doing that, don't climb there, don't go here, don't smoke and don't drink here and don't play there and don't drink and drive and don't go over the speed limit and don't do anything fucken human. You're all so scared of dying you can't let yourselves live — fuck that: we're human, we die, that's part of life. That's just life."
I could go on, but I won't, because I'm not sure everyone would agree with me, but sometimes you have to leave your country to understand it, and reading Barracuda made me feel so much better about many of the things that have bugged me for a decade or more.
All in all, this is a hugely powerful read, not just about sporting achievement and striving to be the best at what you choose to do, but of coming to terms with your own frailties and flaws, of learning to appreciate your family, friends and loved ones, and being prepared to let go of the past in order to move into the future. There's a lot of love, forgiveness, redemption and atonement in this novel. It's ambitious — in structure and in subject — but it succeeds, because Tsiolkas forgoes the literary flourishes and makes it a truly entertaining and accessible read — and that, to me, is what the very best fiction should be all about.
As an aside, I do recommend that you listen to this You Wrote the Book podcast — a 31-minute interview with Christos Tsiolkas — by my mate, Simon Savidge, which covers Barracuda indepth.
And in the interests of transparency, I should point out I met the author on Monday night at his UK book launch — a kinder, more lovelier person you could not meet. I had a wonderful chat to him (about Australian society — what else?) on the walk to a Bloomsbury restaurant, where a celebratory dinner was held with his publishing posse and a whole bunch of people from the upcoming Australian and New Zealand Festival of the Arts to which I'd kindly been invited. That meeting and meal has not influenced this review; I loved the book even before I had the good fortune to meet the man who penned it.