“You got a point, Kelly, but come on, you know sports is the only area where Australia punches above its weight. If we didn’t fund sports we’d be shit at everything.”
Christos Tsiolkas’ new novel Barracuda tells the story of Danny Kelly, a champion swimmer who’s devoted his entire life not just to swimming, but also to being the best swimmer anyone has ever seen. Raised in a working class family and sent off to an elite boarding school on a scholarship, Danny feels shunned from the opulence of his new upper class surroundings, set upon by his classmates as the outsider. His method of survival is to be the best, the fastest, the strongest.
In his adulthood, Dan Kelly has left all of this behind. Events have happened in between and he’s finding a way to atone for past sins, to find some way to live in the world again and to reconcile his shame, his guilt, and who he once was with who he now is. He’s no longer a swimmer, he’s no longer the fastest, and he’s no longer the best. He’s something else, but he’s not sure what that is, or what it takes to find it.
Tsiolkas is easily my favourite author, able to use simple prose to deliver the greatest of messages. He’s been rightly praised for The Slap and its scathing polemic towards the middle class, and he’s got his finger on the pulse about what drives this country, and deftly points to everything that’s unseemly in Australian culture with clarity I can never articulate. His recent article on the treatment of asylum seekers in The Monthly is angry, passionate and precise. He’s able to lay bare the problems with this country, but also decipher what’s caused them and even as to how they could be righted if we were idealistic enough to follow through.
It’s no wonder then that Barracuda has Australian sporting culture in its sights. How fevered and frenzied we are as a nation to idolise and hold heroic our sporting stars, how much weight we put behind their success and what that means to us, and how our cultural identity is shaped by praising that same success and casting out those who aren’t worthy. They are themes present in the novel, but the focus is on Danny Kelly and what his own ambition and pressure makes him become – about the all-absorbing consumption of his goals and how vacant his days are if they can’t be met.
“Everything we have come to expect from this fearless vivisector of our loves and world,” boasts the blurb in relation to Tsiolkas. It’s what I expected of the book – a polemic about the shallowness of the Australian sporting culture. It’s not what I got.
Perhaps the thing that most surprised me about Barracuda is its tenderness, and its sympathy to its characters. Danny Kelly is often a repugnant individual, but Dan Kelly is a captivating man searching for his own forgiveness and meaning. The sport stars are brash and braying, but Tsiolkas develops them and gives them lives around their athletic endeavours.
I was amazed to find myself, for the first time in a relatively sport-free life, to understand the compulsion to compete, the drive for success and why people can devote their entire body and soul into the pursuit of first place, just as much as I was able to see the destructive force of the pressure to be the best and keep my distance from it.
But the biggest centre in the book is Danny’s family, and how much of a pivotal role the family you come from can shape who you are and how you are. Tsiolkas has always been able to capture family life with aplomb, but with Barracuda, I know the Kelly household, how it looks and feels. I know the colours on the walls and state of the gardens and how the light plays in different rooms, and you know this without ever being told.
Dan’s travels take him to Scotland, and the distance from Australia makes it all the more apparent that wherever someone goes, they will never understand anywhere better than where they come from. This is the same with his family, the family he meets and loves and falls into step with in Scotland, just as much as the family who lives in Adelaide that he could never fall in line with.
Tsiolkas has never written caricatures, and his characters are often tarnished with the brush of being “unlikeable” (which for the record, is only a bad thing if they’re uninteresting) but in Barracuda we see them all. Over the course of its 500+ pages, Tsiolkas spends enough time (in the literal sense, as the novel spans two decades) to show his characters growing with their age, made all the more apparent with an expert use of non-linear narrative, and perfect swapping between first and third person voice to narrate Dan/Danny’s life under the radically different circumstances they find themselves in.
When I read The Slap, I would have finished it in a day, had I not needed to go to classes at uni. I was terrified that Barracuda wouldn’t be able to live up to the same high standard, especially given the high-profile praise delivered unto the previous book. I needn’t have worried, because Barracuda is astoundingly good. It’s a page-turner that will engross you in its thoroughly detailed and painstakingly thought out execution. It will surprise you with how generous it can be given the situations. It’s something you should read immediately.