Friday, 7 March 2014

Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin
This very compelling and confronting novel was ‘appreciated’ by the Minervan reading group during February 2014. Some liked Barracuda more than The Slap, others less so.  One comment was that ‘it sang clearer’.  There were various views about the structure of the The Slap versus the complicated structure of Barracuda.  The critics are equally diverse in their opinions on this matter.  What is undeniable for most of us though is that both books grab your attention and hold it until the end.

The underlying message of this book is: what is a good man ?  It is the story of a young man, Danny Kelly, from his teenage years to about 30 and his desire to be the best swimmer in Australia. This theme is often repeated in the book – his Dad is considered a ‘good man’ for instance as is his lover, Clyde, but it is a hard journey for Danny Kelly to find out if he can attain this trait too.  Danny (or Dan as the adult) suffers considerable and long lasting anger, shame, class restrictions and class confrontation, and racism as well as many other high emotional states in order to achieve redemption and some self-awareness. 

Many of the reviews for this novel pick up on Australia’s national obsession with sport but that is not the essence of the book. Swimming is only the vehicle for relating Danny’s journey. The difficulties for swimmer Nick D'Arcy was possibly a catalyst for Tsiolkas’ original idea. Danny is a working class boy who wins a swimming scholarship to an elite private school in Melbourne.  (The school we decided is based on Wesley College.) He suffers all the trauma of a poor Greek kid dealing with and eventually winning over some of the ‘golden boys’ by his behaviour – firstly winning in the pool and then acting psycho after his failure.  So much of the story is told through his thoughts and his pain. He lacks communication skills and confidence and no adult seems to be aware of this except the coach. However even the coach does not help him sufficiently and feels guilty.  Danny wouldn’t let anyone, including his beloved family get too close to him incase they might pity him, and that was to be avoided most of all.

There was some discussion about the use of first and third person in the novel in order to show chronological periods. However these changes flowed and were not difficult to comprehend.  Tsiolkas also cleverly provides some dates to assist the reader with the story line as he jumps about. These devices provide the reader with a ready understanding of Dan’s personality and difficulties, which would not be so apparent if the book was straightly chronological. 

This story is very physical and violent and so is true to the character of a male teenager and young adult, not only in the climactic scene of the fight with Martin Taylor but also in the love scenes and in his interactions with other boys at school.  Tsiolkas has described the sensation of swimming in a race superbly and ‘our’ swimmers especially related well to these descriptions – for instance, how the water sometimes works with you and other days how it doesn’t!  Anger made Danny swim well but it also made him a raging bull when he couldn’t control it.  Maybe his mild mannered persona most of the time made him slip through the cracks for anger management lessons.  Anther very vivid scene was that of the grandmother’s party and her manipulation of her children at the Taylors' beach house which was most unpleasant.  The grandmother also put the shy young Danny on the spot where he didn’t know the rules. Tsiolkas captures Danny’s insecurity so well.
We highlighted the number of ‘real’ swimmers mentioned too, notably Kieran Perkins and Ian Thorpe. This led to one member commenting on the psychological problems suffered by many elite athletes.

Also ‘real’ books are mentioned by Tsiolkas which had an impact upon the boy.  On the way to Adelaide to see his dying grandmother Dan could not tell his mother that books had helped him.  
He'd found a voice that made sense of time and space as he was experiencing it. (page 339)  
We also liked the joke that he enjoyed classics more than more modern novels!

We thought the author captured Melbourne’s atmosphere so well too, this was particularly noticed by the former Melbournians.  For instance, the travel on trains across the city and the beautiful grounds of the school or the architecture of Taylor’s house in comparison with the ordinary Kelly house. The comments about beach houses and their position on the peninsula brought some humour – is Sorrento better or worse than Portsea?

Again Tsiolkas has produced a complex and exciting novel of 21st century Australia. He is one of the few novelists who have really ‘got’ the present age. 


  1. Thanks Sylvia for capturing the breadth of our discussion so well. I would like to expand on the point regarding elite athletes to say that while Tsiolkas explores here, the impact of "failure" in sport, we discussed that even elite athletes who succeed can suffer similar crises to Danny when they no longer have the singleminded goal. (As we seem to be seeing, for example now with a couple of our Olympic swimmers.)

  2. Good point and well made -- thanks for fixing up the post


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