Barracuda, by Christos Tsiolkas, Atlantic, £12.99, 528 pages
Few nations have a sport so firmly embedded in their psyche as Australia. But at what cost? To produce each gold medal, how many dreams are shattered? What does a winner-takes-all mentality do to a society’s broader values, not to mention those of individual athletes?
For Danny Kelly, the protagonist of Christos Tsiolkas’s new novel Barracuda, these questions are not abstract. A prodigiously talented schoolboy swimmer from an immigrant family, Danny knows instinctively that Olympic gold offers an otherwise unimaginable route to status and riches. How else can a “wog” – someone with a Greek-Australian mother and a Scots-Australian father – get ahead? A sports scholarship at one of Melbourne’s top private schools will provide the opportunity to fulfil his ambition. It may also cost him his soul.
Fans of Tsiolkas’s breakthrough novel The Slap (2008) will find many of the same preoccupations here, in particular how race, class and sexuality combine to shape identities. The Slap turns upon a barbecue at which an adult hits a child, the repercussions playing out among a small group of family and friends. Barracuda, too, finds its gravitational centre in an act of violence. In both books, rage is tempered by moments of compassion and even sentimentality.
In tone, however, the new novel feels quite different, closer perhaps
to Tsiolkas’s debut, Loaded (1995). Gone is the panoramic sweep, sense of authorial distance and social satire that gave The Slap its breezy Dickensian energy. Barracuda has less raised eyebrow and more furrowed brow. Stripped of ironies, it is as inward-turned and intense as its troubled protagonist.
Tsiolkas gives Danny’s alienation strikingly physical expression: this is a book in which the body betrays as much as it elevates. Not for him the perfect teeth and clear skin of the other boys at his new school. By contrast, Danny the Greek is short, dark and hairy. Confirmed in his otherness wherever he looks, he bristles with resentment. He is also is captivated by what he can’t be, forming a crush on the gilded Taylor, a fellow swimmer and sometime tormentor.
But, if he is literally out of his element in the classroom, in the pool Danny is king. “The water obeyed him,” Tsiolkas writes. The swimming scenes – among the book’s strongest – suggest an almost mystical experience: “And then it came, that sense he was no longer conscious of the individual parts of his body . . . The stillness came, and he was the water.”
Athletes call this “the zone”. For Danny, it is a place where he can be both zero and hero, shrug off the self yet exert complete control, like a barracuda. But the real world can’t be tamed so easily. Convinced of his destiny, he leaves himself no plan B in case of failure. When the fall comes (and it is not giving away much to reveal that it does), it is catastrophic.
Barracuda is many things: an unconventional gay coming of age story, a portrait of sporting obsession, a dispatch from the class war. But, above all, it is a book about how someone recovers from failure and the shame that accompanies it. Tsiolkas chooses to tell the story from two alternating perspectives: Danny the boy and Dan the man. So painful is the schism between the two that the latter barely answers to the former’s name.
To find peace, Dan must come to terms with his younger self. The process takes him from Scotland (where he is living with his Glaswegian lover) back into the bosom of his family and friends. Subtly mirroring Dan’s journey are those of some of the other characters: his leftwing father, lapsed Jehovah’s Witness mother, and lesbian best friend, Demet.
Tsiolkas again shows a particular ability to create spiky psychological snapshots: which is to say that his characters tend to be believably uneven. Less consistently credible is the arc of redemption traced by the plot. An unexpected legacy at a crucial moment and the leadenly symbolic role that water plays in signalling Dan’s rebirth both feel a little preordained.
If the book is concerned with what is lost when people reinvent themselves, more specifically it asks what is lost when people stray outside their class. As was the case with The Slap, this novel shows an ambivalence about, if not a downright suspicion of, the middle classes – a fear perhaps that they are somehow inauthentic. This view is echoed by Taylor’s distinctly upper-crust grandmother: “I’ve always admired the working class, my dear, always,” she tells Danny at an excruciating dinner party. “Like us, you know exactly who you are . . . Lord, how I detest the middle class.”
Danny’s story shows that there is more than one way to be a winner. Sport may have offered him a foot up the social ladder. But was the ladder worth climbing in the first place? Tsiolkas leaves the question hanging, not that that will deter his legion of middle-class admirers from diving in.
Adrian Turpin is director of the Wigtown Book Festival