Book Review: Barracuda
After finishing Christos Tsiolkas’s Barracuda I am both relieved and resentful. The feeling is only relatable to drinking coffee that is too hot. You don’t want to burn your mouth but you know the coffee is good. To say that Barracuda is good is an understatement. By no means should I or anyone compare what Tsiolkas has done to coffee, but the sensation is the same.
When reading Barracuda you want it to end because what becomes of your friend Danny Kelly becomes so important to you. You want to know if he makes the Olympic Games and thus the need for peace of mind via a satisfying ending burns inside you. You have to know how to deal with the want and let it sit with you. The pages turn and you inch closer and you are burning and you still don’t want to stop. You start to think ‘classic Danny’ when you recognise one of his idiosyncrasies and when his familiar chants ring through your mind like a beautiful haunting chorus.
Barracuda is about Danny Kelly, a boy from a working class family in the suburbs of Melbourne. Danny is not like any of the other working class kids at his school though. He is an elite swimmer with the physical talent and mental discipline to fulfil his dream of making the Olympic Games in 2000. Danny moves to a private school with a better facility and coach to take him to the next level. The private school culture and competitiveness show a side of Danny that even he is afraid of.
In modern Western culture success is largely determined by economic and career focused benchmarks. Today’s working class are at a greater disadvantage than ever before. The gap is widening between performance at public and private schools. Elite sport, even with all of its government funding, can usually only be reserved for the kids whose parents are willing to fund the ride. Danny Kelly could not succeed without a scholarship from the private school he affectionately calls ‘Cunts College’. The government and Australian Sports Commission will fund athletes to a certain extent, but what Tsiolkas shows so poignantly is that at that grass roots level sport in Australia is still controlled by the people who can afford to be great. Tsiolkas shows that in a society claiming equality, inequality still reigns in the background of organisations like the Australian Swimming Team.
The importance of success is something that no one needs to be convinced of but when the stakes are set so high, and set that high by ourselves, the risk for failure is constantly present. Each misstep can lead to disastrous consequences for Danny. Barracuda examines our innate want of glory and our innate fear of failure. Then it goes beyond examination and exposes them. Barracuda is about redemption. Barracuda, at its most fundamental level, is a novel about redeeming ourselves. Danny must redeem himself time and time again. Tsiolkas asks ‘How long does it take to forgive yourself?’ A question Danny will ask himself and a question that Tsiolkas poses to all of us reading.
Christos Tsiolkas has crafted an imaginative story structured to leave you gasping. Barracuda shows what it means to be human in Australia; it shows what it means to be human at all. What Tsiolkas has shown with Barracuda is that he is one of the greatest Australian writers working today. The structure is intricate, the plot is ferocious, the characters are familiar and at the same time unfamiliar. Weeks separated from Danny Kelly the impact lives on. I feel that I am now living post-Barracuda.
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamMeyers1