barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

barracuda coverReading this book was like being at a party where there’s loud music in one room and a lot of serious arguing going on in another.  You know there are some interesting points being made in the arguing room but all the noise makes your ears ring.  When you leave the party you’re not sure what you’ve got in your loot bag.  On the whole, you’re glad you went.

The story is about Danny Kelly who wins a scholarship to an elite private boys school in Melbourne because he’s a champion swimmer.  From a working class Greek/Scottish background he’s clearly different to the majority of the boys who hail from rich W.A.S.P. families.

Danny is soon bullied by other members of the swim team.  His swim coach overhears him being bullied and advises him to “Give it back.”  To never let an insult go unanswered.  This immediately made me nervous – as far as I could see Danny’s default setting was already insane fury.  Danny takes Coach’s advice to heart.  He becomes ‘Psycho Danny’ and earns what passes as respect from the snobby elite.  He is always ‘other’ though, always the hairy ‘wog’ (including in his own eyes).  Social events at his new mates’ homes are hair-raisingly embarrassing (and well written).  Tsiolkas writes ‘snobby upper-class distaste’ very well.

Every time Danny’s embarrassed or put down he resolves to show them all by being “the fastest, the strongest, the best” in the swimming pool.

His dream is smashed when he comes fifth in his first big international competition.  He has a meltdown in the pool, loses control and mortifies himself completely.  His life stumbles on after this.  He gives up swimming and school and works in a supermarket.  On the opening night of the Sydney Olympics he commits a drunken act of violence triggered by a reminder of all the slights and insults he has never forgotten or forgiven.  Jail for eight months follows.

Prison is a turning point for Dan (as he now likes to be called).  He falls in love with books and has an intense sexual relationship with another prisoner.  When he comes out he avoids his family but meets Clyde, a stubborn Scotsman, with whom he has a good, sound relationship.  He goes to Scotland with Clyde.  He returns to Australia without Clyde.  Now he has to reconnect somehow with his family.

barracuda is a big thump of a book.  In a way it’s a Trojan horse – used to deliver some of Tsiolkas’s political and social perspectives.  Tsiolkas places snobbery, racism and inequality everywhere in ‘egalitarian’ Australia.  Other themes include: family (and how it can save you if you let it) and the potential destructiveness of competitive sports.

The novel moves backwards and forwards in time and from Melbourne to Scotland and back.  The story is told either by Dan or from Dan’s perspective.  Because at any one time Dan is full of; shame, anger , resentment, self-loathing or brutal ambition, you can’t trust his interpretation of events.  More importantly, he misreads people and suspects the motives of people who are genuinely on his side.  This happened all the time and was frustrating to read.

I wanted to shake Danny but I knew he’d probably kill me.

barracuda is a vicious critique of Australian society.  To be fair, though, Tsiolkas does not suggest that anywhere else is better.  Maybe he would deliver a similarly strong critique on any society where he chose to set his novels?  He has a keen eye for the ways in which human beings can inflict pain on one another.  Perhaps his higher theme is ‘man’s inhumanity to man’- a theme not uniquely relevant to Australia.

By the end of this book I was dazed but also impressed by the sheer force of the whole thing.  Tsiolkas is a good, clear writer and can drive a story along with brio.  He managed to fit some lovely humane things about what it means to be a good person in, using the line from David Copperfield about being a hero in your own life (as opposed to letting someone else have that role).

Highlights:  The set pieces – the excruciating dinner parties and lunches.  Descriptions of the joys of swimming, flying and reading.  Celebration of the ordinary triumphs in ordinary lives.

Otherlights.  Bit shouty.  Dan’s take on life wearying.

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