All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Barracuda – Christos Tsiolkas

on December 15, 2013

BarracudaBarracuda
Christos Tsiolkas
Allen & Unwin
2013, 528p
Read from my TBR shelf

Danny wants to win a gold medal at the Olympics. That’s all he wants to do. He gets a swimming scholarship to one of Melbourne’s most prestigious high schools and his middle class parents struggle just to pay for the uniform, the books, the extras that Danny will need. They also worry about what going to this sort of school will do to him, whether or not it will change him, give him ideas. Danny faces isolation and bullying from the boys from the moment he arrives. Everything about him is all wrong: his address, his upbringing, his buxom Greek mother who doesn’t look like the mothers of the other boys. The only thing he can do to combat this is to be the fastest. The strongest. The best. To beat them all.

Coach believes in him. Coach tells him that with dedication and his training Danny can be the best. He can go all the way. And so Danny does what Coach tells him and he trains like a demon and one by one he beats the other boys, earning their respect, earning a place among them. Slowly Danny climbs the ranks aiming for the competitions that leapfrog a swimmer to opportunity and greatness, the Commonwealth and Olympic Games. He has visions of how it will be, what he will do when he is famous. He is the best. He is the fastest. He is the greatest. He is the psycho. He is Barracuda.

So Christos Tsiolkas, we meet again. And again you greet me with one of my favourite words on what is basically the first page of this novel. Do you have an aim for this? Do you ponder how you can work the word cunt into your opening page of each novel? Or is it just something that happens naturally? Well I’d better get used to it because if I were able to word search cunt in this novel, it might just come up as the most frequently used word. I read The Slap and I didn’t have much love for it. A bunch of morally bankrupt people doing despicable things to each other and then I watched the TV adaptation which I enjoyed a lot better. I was a bit apprehensive about Barracuda but I like to give things a go and I’d heard good things and so I decided that maybe we could be friends.

Barracuda enveloped me from the start with the story of Danny who at 12, transfers to a high school in Toorak. He lives in Reservoir and anyone who has even remotely wandered into Melbourne knows that the two of those are not exactly similar. Toorak is private schools, houses that sell for $10 million and Eddie McGuire pretending he still lives in Broadmeadows. But Danny is a promising swimmer, a driven swimmer and this is the best school for developing that gift and they are willing to waive his fees for him to be there. And so Danny learns that to be the man….you have to beat the man. And that’s what he does.

But this book isn’t just about a kid who can swim. It’s about a kid who is half Greek. Who has friends who are the children of immigrants. It’s about racism and society and classes that still exist and judgement. It holds a mirror up to Australia and the reflection is at times, very ugly. Part of me deeply understood what is being said here. Australia is lambasted by several characters in this novel, one of them Danny’s best childhood friend, probably a first generation Australian. The other is a grown up Danny’s lover who is from the UK, and both of them are savage on the country for many reasons. Australia is under fire a lot at the moment for its racism, its treatment of ethnic minorities and refugees. The country is a political mess right now and things look like they’ll only get worse. Every other day there’s a story in the media that breaks your heart and makes you wonder what the fuck happened to a country that at one stage, took everyone. And then I look at my husband, who is himself a first generation Australian and he tells me it’s no different now to when he was growing up. He was a wog, a dago, etc. He didn’t even want to learn his parent’s language because it only attracted more negative attention. It’s just the dislike/distrust/fear of Europeans has been transferred to a different race. And yet at the same time when I read books that contain characters that hate Australia, I can’t help but want to defend it. Because not everyone is like that, or agrees with what the government does. I don’t think Australia is perfect at all. But in the case of Danny’s adult friend, who is out here on a visa, I can’t help but think that if it’s so much better in Scotland and so much offends you then why are you still here? And then I’d tell myself to calm down and that it isn’t as if I’ve never judged another country or commented negatively and I have never even been overseas! I’m not qualified to comment on anything.

And I think that is what Christos Tsiolkas does. He makes you feel things. A lot of things. All of the things. And some of those things are rage and disgust. It forces me to accept these other views about Australia and yes, some of them are extremely valid. I felt a lot of things about Danny – in true Tsiolkas form, I didn’t always like him. But I didn’t always dislike him either and even though he did some incredibly bad things, I couldn’t help thinking that he was ripe for that sort of dreadful crash back to reality. Danny had not had to deal with losing in his life, in terms of swimming and when he does, at an important competition, he basically shuts down. And keeps everything locked up inside until it explodes out in the most shockingly violent way. This book was very powerful even though it’s told in fits and starts, switching backwards and forwards in time and so you piece things together even before the moment is revealed that is Danny’s lowest. It’s such a good story as well – surprisingly on some level I could relate to Danny. Not because I’m a swimmer or anything like that, but I could imagine how it would feel to roll up at that school on the first day and know that you were different to perhaps everyone else. It’s not hard to sympathise, because it’s a rare person that hasn’t been made to feel an outcast at some stage in their lives.

This book also takes an interesting look at Australia’s obsession with sport. Danny is accepted because he can more than hold his own against the private school boys. The book also tackles the time of the Sydney Olympics – by then Danny no longer swims and he’s angry and bitter about it and he wants to find the one place that won’t be showing the opening ceremony. This proves to be pretty much impossible with the entire city of Melbourne caught up in the fever of it, obsessing over it. Even his childhood friend who hated the idea, hated the waste of money, hated the sport-worshiping culture, is enthralled by the opening ceremony. I remember the Sydney Olympics so well but mostly because for once it was actually in a time zone where you didn’t have to get up at 4am to watch swimming finals or settle for replays. It’s hard not to get swept up into the excitement of being good at something and the crash when you are not (such as the swimmer’s performance in London 2012) kind of mirrored Danny, although Danny’s was a much more dramatic downfall. Being good at something tends to build national pride. Everyone knows Shane Warne is basically a giant knob but for a long time, he was a giant knob who could bowl a ball no one could hit. That meant something. It sort of fits into the Aussie self-deprecating laid back humour: “well we’re not good as much but we’re pretty shit hot in all sorts of sports. We’ll take that”.

Overall I was surprised how much I ended up really enjoying Barracuda. It’s such a good story and although at times it made me mad or disgusted, I admire any book that can make me feel such things so strongly and yet still continue to enjoy it. We might not be friends yet Christos Tsiolkas, but we’re more than acquaintances now!

This review turned out to be a lot longer than I expected which is interesting given I put it off for a week!

8/10

Book #317 of 2013

Aussie Author Challenge

Barracuda is book #18 of the Aussie Author Challenge for 2013.

 

 

 

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11 responses to “Barracuda – Christos Tsiolkas

  1. Jenn J McLeod | House for all Seasons says:

    Thank you for a year of interesting reviews. You always put so much thought and often passion into them and this one left me with lots of feelings (and even a chuckle at your tongue-in-cheek). Love it. Merry Christmas. May you get many books fro Santa!

  2. Took me ages to review this book as well…and yet I still feel as if I haven’t ordered all of my thoughts about the story. Like The Slap, it’s a book that I could begin having a deep conversation about at any time.

  3. Paul Devereux says:

    Thanks for your review. I really liked Barracuda and think it was a progression for Tsilakos from The Slap which I also really enjoyed. I am a Melb boy and have grown up in the same multicultural inner suburbs that Tsilakos builds his stories from and thinks he gets it just right. Beyond the obvious ethnic restaurants is a complicated, seething world of class, ethnicity, education and aspiration that make Melbourne what it is. His exploration of sport and its influence and potential for personal corruption in Australia is also unique.

    • I live in Melbourne too but a different part and I didn’t grow up here. I didn’t relate to any of his characters in The Slap but I found the characters in this novel easier to understand and I could imagine myself knowing them. For me, it’s a much more enjoyable novel than The Slap although both do give the reader so much to think about and discuss.

  4. Barracuda is such a deceptively complex story. I had trouble with my review too Bree, so much to talk about but not always easy to articulate.

    • I’m glad I’m not the only one! I always feel a bit awkward reviewing novels like this sometimes, did I “get” it and did I grasp all the themes and questions etc! Probably not most of the time!

  5. I thought Barracuda was a really engaging read. I’d say ‘enjoyable’, but it felt like having this big thug coming at me the whole time. Tsiolkas language is so meaty and intense, and Danny is such a brilliant character with an incredibly well-drawn arc, even if you do want to punch him at times. I’ve been following Tsiolkas’ work for a few years and I think he’s really come into his own with Barracuda. I reviewed Barracuda here: http://margotmcgovern.wordpress.com/2014/01/14/barracuda-by-christos-tsiolkas/

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