It seems like the idea of Australia in the 21st century, with its cultures and subcultures, politics, middle class families, love and angst are themes you have come to expect from author Christos Tsiolkas. The same sardonic undertone present in The Slap (Remember “Welcome to Australia in the early 21st century”?) can be witnessed in Tsiolkas’ new book, ‘Barracuda,’ with similarities in the manner in which he dissects feelings of belonging and isolation.
We follow the life of Daniel Kelly who battles his inner turbulences, his relationship with his family and his mates at his new school, all through swimming. As a swimming prodigy, he is awarded a scholarship to a prestigious Melbourne private school, referred to in the novel as ‘Cunts College.’ Here, understandably, Kelly feels out of place. The only way he is able to insulate himself from all the slights directed at him is by swimming and winning. He assures himself, that he is the ‘strongest, fastest, best.’
But even as you, as a reader, start picturising laurels at Olympics for him, you are thrown off-kilter. In what is the central piece of the book, we watch passively as Kelly is almost a mute spectator of Sydney Olympics, battling again with his inner demons who keep nudging that he is a failure and also the country’s politics at play.
One of the key aspects of the book is the author’s handling of the narrative. We know from the start about Kelly’s phobia towards swimming pools, his time in prison, his relationship with his partner Clyde, but everything is mingled together so the crucial details are tantalisingly out of reach to the reader. The story, you can say, all over the place. This non-chronological approach, in effect, is Tsiolkas’ way of portraying the different dilemmas of his protagonist which in a way evokes some sympathy and pathos. Kelly’s dreams and aspirations, narcissism, violence and brutality and then gradual isolation is grudgingly very moving.
But even then, you can’t help but feel something is amiss. For Tsiolkas employs a manner of spelling out every single feeling experienced by Kelly rather than letting us see it for ourselves. This irritates the reader to the point where you stop sympathizing with Kelly. You find him way self-indulgent too.
Coming back to the style of the narrative, another grouse you may have is the author’s constant switching between third-person to first-person narrator: it can be awfully distracting when you are in the throes of reading an antagonizing story.
But you can easily forgive these imbalances as the underlying plot is bigger than the manner of portrayal. You inherently feel for Danny, weep as you grasp his rise as a swimmer and merciless decline and the sub plots, one of which is a gay couple pondering of parenting a baby.
His language, with visceral references and slangs reek of originality adds to the overall quality of the book. If you can stomach this and the poignancy and shame that occupies the book, Barracuda deserves a read.