“There are not enough great international novels about failure. This is one of them.”
A Writer’s review of Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda.
AN Australian book tackling the mask of bravado worn by the successful Aussie sportsman was well overdue by the time Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda was published in 2013.
The author could have chosen from a multitude of codes and team pursuits, but focussing on competitive swimming was an exquisite selection. An individual pastime that traps the practitioner in a world broken down into opposing elemental forces – wet and dry, fast and slow, breath and suffocation, diving in and getting out – it also polarises the story’s hero into a gripping battle between himself and others.
Young Danny’s wilful ascent to the pinnacle, assisted by the affirmation of a scholarship to a sports-connected Melbourne private school, is told with relentless energy. While he is an outwardly defiant creature who carries important secrets, Danny’s inner voice reveals truths he cannot escape from. Tsiolkas lets us see him within and without, a technique that breaks all the rules yet rounds-out his hero’s lies and hidden pain so effectively.
With his quick, sharp stabs, Tsiolkas is a writer who gets under the skin, but his blade is just in this ripping tale of ambition and competition and their devastating impact on families.
The way the author toys with time challenges the reader’s sense of hope for Danny. Swapping between future, past and present events always gave me hope – too much of it – that somehow Danny would find redemption in his climb to the heights of Olympic fame.
But Tsiolkas’ montage style does a lot more than that. His frenzied, fast-moving juxtapositions underpin the speed at which I was able to read this work. I have not felt so enlivened by a book since Tim Winton’s page-turning, problematic work of genius, The Riders.
In the late 1990s, when Tsiolkas’ first book Loaded was filmed as Head On, I read an interview with Tsiolkas in which he challenged the very idea of the ‘Aussie Battler’, and my life being what it was at that time – in a process of great upheaval as I was coming out – I could do nothing but cheer for his indictment of old-fashioned notions of what constitutes an Australian family.
Barracuda is a deeper exploration of similar territory, although since Head On, Tsiolkas’ work has become far more expansive, taking more prisoners along the way.
In The Slap he was accused of padding out a powerful if repetitive story, but Barracuda pulls off this style in a more life-enlarging way, as Danny’s journey plays out unexpectedly well beyond school and the swimming pool.
His journey back from the brink charts classic recovery territory, but it also breaks new ground.
Danny is another of Tsiolkas’ living, breathing gay protagonists, and the choices he faces about loving relationships are written with a resounding ring of truth. The visceral sex scenes, underpinned by gripping descriptions of the desires behind the mechanics, speak to much more than the act itself. They go to the heart of identity, just another tool in Danny’s arsenal of choices, like winning races, remaining his family’s hero, and the role of men in society.
In the dénouement, I wondered whether the amount of expression Danny and his family achieve was realistic – it’s the kind of resolution many yearn for in real life, particularly those who have not lived up to the expectations they’ve put on themselves, or had placed on them by others.
But Tsiolkas’ fractured style allows us to see the untruths and the emotional shortcomings his protagonist does not see in himself. In some ways this puts us, and Danny, back at square one, but it feels apt.
With Danny’s second chance, Tsiolkas is asking the reader to wonder if life is possible without some degree of lying to oneself.
There are not enough great international novels about failure. This is one of them.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.
This article also appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.