Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Christos Tsiolklas
Allen & Unwin
528pp, Nov 13, $32.99AU, ISBN 9781743317310
Barracuda is the nickname of young Danny Kelly, a working class boy, half Scottish and half Greek, who obtains a swimming scholarship to an exclusive Sydney private school. Danny’s whole world is focused around winning – being “stronger, faster, better” than his co-students. He feels their scorn; their rejection, everywhere except for in the pool, where he ‘flies’ through the water and feels himself to be perfected and free of the class, race, and physical characteristics that hamper him on the ground.
The story is told from Danny’s point of view, and we feel intensely the myopic and painful alienation that Danny feels as he tried to make his way in this uncomfortable world. Though we get to experience Danny’s pain, hear the taunts, and hear the accolades when he wins, we also soon realise that Danny is an unreliable narrator. His perspective is skewed by the obsession he has with proving himself through his sporting prowess. Encouraged by his coach, Frank Torma, who convinces Danny that he can make it to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Dan sacrifices everything for his training. In the water, Danny is in the ‘zone’; he is perfect:
He dived into the water and all the pieces came together: everything was liquid and it was in being liquid that everything became clear. The water parted for him, the water caressed him, the water obeyed him. He swam, he propelled himself through the water; the muscles that moved as they should, the power of his limbs, his lungs and his heart which breathed and beat in a harmony that was clean and efficient. Only in the water were he and the world unsullied. (132)
Once he surfaces, his self-hatred and anger are so bundled up with his swimming capabilities that there is no room for anything other a complete win. His inevitable downfall comes along with a ‘coming-of-age’ that involves a growing sexuality, a breaking down of his sense of self, and a streak of violence that undermines all of his plans.
Barracuda is at once unsettling and disturbing, not least of which because Danny is initially a rather unlikeable narrator, using his strength and heft to push around younger students and fight his way through what he perceives as a world set against him: “He was no hero but they were scared of him. He was Psycho Kelly. None of them dared to take him on.” (226) Danny grows through the ten years in which this novel is set, first through pain and shame, and later through a self-awareness that becomes understanding, compassion, and forgiveness (even when unrequited) towards himself and others. There is a great deal of poetry in this novel, from the very first words:
When the rain first spills from those egg-white foams of cloud that seem too delicate to have burst forth in such a deluge, I freeze. The heavy drops fizz on the dry grass as they hit; I think this is what a pit of snakes would sound like. And suddenly the rain is falling in sheets, though the sky is still blue, the sun still shining. (3)
Though the novel progresses in time from Danny’s childhood through a very painful transition (and incarceration) to adulthood, it is circular, moving back and forth in time, and swapping between narrative forms. Because the novel is wholly taken from Danny’s point of view, we move with him through his interior, rather than exterior chronology, finding meaning in the present through dissection and reliving the past. It would be easy to read this book, at least in the beginning, as a criticism of our definition of the ‘golden character’ – the quintessentially white, blond, gifted, smooth Australian that Danny fears he will never be. However, Tsiolkas takes us deeper into Danny’s psyche and finds that his own eagerness to categorise and limit himself and others is more damaging than the apparently prejudices of those who surround him. Danny’s definition of ‘golden’ is not the only one we see, and he is not the only migrant in the book. Young Danny sees winning and losing as absolutes in this book – it’s all or nothing, good or bad, sport or family.
Danny’s growth process through Barracuda raises questions about the nature of what it means to be a ‘good’ and self-fulfilled person, about marginality and the politics of difference – in terms of race, sexuality, and capability, about notions of ‘home’ and nationality (and not only with respect to migrants, though the migrant perspective is strong), how we make meaning in our life even when our dreams falter, the notion of privilege, and questions of class. All of these things are handled subtly and powerfully, through dichotomies that play out naturally through the course of the narrative.
Danny struggles particularly with the men in his life: his father and brother, his sporting colleagues – particularly the waspy, privileged Martin Taylor, the beautiful, brainy Luke, his coach Torma, and his partner Clyde, but there are also a number of females that Danny loves, abuses, objectifies, and marginalises: his friend Demet, his mother, his sister, and Martin’s sister Emma. Danny’s growth is played out through these relationships as the reader slowly watches them morph along with the protagonist. None of Danny’s perceptions of the characters are as they originally seem, challenging the reader to rethink and reposition our own prejudices. Although this is definitely Danny’s story, peripheral characters are all well-drawn, rich and complex.
The book begins and ends with water, a fluid and malleable medium that yields against Danny’s body, but ultimately wears away his shame and pain as he learns to “breath again”. The book is confronting on a number of levels, not least of which because Tsiolklas never makes Danny into a passive victim – he is always the instigator of his own pain – taking others fears, frailties and flaws, and stretching the impact to extreme outcomes. However, despite the intensity, Barracuda is a transformative novel, full of rich, exquisite lyricism that strikes at the heart of what it means, beyond all the labels we and others place on ourselves, to be a human being.
About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com