Barracuda – Christos-Tsiolkas

B Cuda  2The story is not told in chronological order and it jumps around along with Danny’s thoughts and feelings. It moves from the first to third person as the protagonist ages.

Like The Slap, this book starts slowly. One reviewer said that it took a good couple of hundred pages ‘before I started to feel even the remotest connection with Daniel, then the story of impressive failure really starts to get under your skin.’ One of our members gave up after a few pages but another said that it is worth going beyond the difficult bits.

Another said that it was a `marmite’ read – you’ll either love it or hate it. One of us said: I usually prefer chronologically written novels, but this worked OK.  I just think that EVERY chapter should have a time line heading to help the elderly.

Some of the characters are very shallow – or is that because Danny views them thus? I was surprised that one reviewer said that Danny is not a likeable character. Danny found it difficult to communicate with others. There were some reminiscences of ‘The Curious Tale of the Dog in the Nightime’   …..did Danny have some slight form of Asperger’s?

One of our members said: Having won a scholarship myself to a (minor) English Public School, I totally empathized with Danny’s feelings of being looked down on at the start and the need to establish oneself as ‘Good As You’.    I did that through Sport, like Danny (in my case Rowing, not Swimming), but it was the only way to become ‘accepted/admired’ (Two more of us identified with that sense of low self-esteem, too.) It raised huge questions about the ‘Losers’ in Sport…..or any other competitive field.  Our society idolizes the winners. Who cares for the losers?

An unflinching look at modern Australia, hopes and dreams, friendships, and families, class, sport, politics, migration and education: everything a person is: family and friendship and love and work, the identities we inhabit and discard, the means by which we fill the holes at our centre.

One member thought it was badly edited – it seemed as if the author wasn’t gay – but he is; wasn’t a political activist – but he is; and didn’t know Glasgow at first hand, because he writes about red brick buildings –but it turns out that he does know Glasgow. And a ‘selective comprehensive school’ is a contradiction in terms.

We know from early on that the ex-swimmer has spent time in jail, but the precise nature of his crime is lengthily withheld, although hinted at tantalisingly and sometimes with clever misdirection.

Daniel is known by several different variations of his name and by nick-names (“Danny”, “Dna”, “Dino” and “Barracuda”) a sure sign of confusion about where he fits in – not only within his family, but at school and in wider society.

One of us loved the dinner party with Martin’s Grandmother…..especially her confident opinions about the classes in Australia.  He also hated the racism..

The book is filled with watery metaphors: “drowning”, “floating” and “freestyle”, among other words, have both swimming and non-swimming meanings. And, after The Slap, Christos Tsiolkas has written another novel that deserves to make a big splash.

Danny is also a fish out of water.  At the start of the novel he has just won a swimming scholarship to a prestigious private school where his working class background sets him apart amongst the scions of Melbourne’s upper class sons.

We liked his descriptions of ‘Oneness’ with the water.  It reminded him of sailing a rough sea at daybreak.

B Cuda fishbarracuda = “a predatory marine mostly tropical fish, which attacks man.” .

I am no prude but I was quite disgusted by his eating tissues smeared with various bodily fluids. But another member found this quite erotic.

Amusing that one girl seems to be named after a pizza – Margarita.

Is the happy ending somewhat contrived or does this reflect the coach, who had nobody else in his life apart from those he encouraged, for whom he wanted some sort of legacy.

Overall, we liked the redemptive aspects of this book.

 Quotations (from the book):

“We are parochial and narrow-minded and we are racist and ungenerous and we occupy this land illegitimately and we’re toadies to the Poms and servile to the Yanks.”

“He’s going to be ashamed of this moment for the rest of his life.”

He found their worlds too insular, their style too self-conscious and ironic”

B Cuda 3Quotations (from the author):

 “I knew I wanted to write a story about contemporary class”

 “It wasn’t the initial story that I thought it was, but the connection is still there. It’s like with Nick D’Arcy ­­– can you come back from doing something so completely terrible and ugly? Can you forgive yourself and can you be forgiven?” (The idea for Christos Tsiolkas’s fifth novel came from a misheard news report. When he first found out about Olympic swimmer Nick D’Arcy assaulting teammate Simon Cowley in 2008, Tsiolkas had thought he caught a detail about D’Arcy being from a working-class background – instantly, the picture of a frustrated young athlete forced to move in a world of privileged ‘golden boys’ began to paint itself in his mind. The tidbit turned out to be incorrect – D’Arcy’s father is a successful surgeon – but the picture stuck: Danny Kelly, the teenaged swimming star from the wrong side of Melbourne’s tracks and protagonist of Tsolkas’s Barracuda, was born.

“How do you be a good man?”

“It’s not an autobiography, but it is from within me.”
B Cuda 4
“I’ve been running away from this for a while, and I’m still working through it, but it was the experience of going to university that tore me away from my working-class roots. Becoming a student in that world, I had some amazing experiences, but I no longer was working class.”

“I wanted to create a gay character where there was no element of the coming out story. You can trust the readership to fill in the gaps, that story has been told so many times. And in terms of our context, it wasn’t useful, just like you don’t read a book about a heterosexual character and want to know how they came to terms dealing with their sexuality in their teen years.”

“I’ll do a little bit of research on this subject and then three hours later you’ve watched three pornos and 25 youtube videos, and just feel like shit!”

it’s historical, set in the world of early Christianity, and the question I’m asking myself is, ‘What did Christianity answer in the Mediterranean world that couldn’t be satisfied by pagan religion?’” That’s quite a task, we offer. “Yes, it’s a challenge. My books have always been about the contemporary world so it will be interesting to see what I can outside of that.

I wanted to make Danny’s mother a Jehovah’s Witness so that we get a sense of Stephanie having had to make her own choices and sacrifices in her youth when it came to belonging. It also meant that she was an outsider in the Greek community of Melbourne. I thought that would be more interesting, that it would allow for an exploration of family life rooted in ideas of faith rather than in nationhood or ethnicity. I think that the excommunication that Stephanie experiences is brutal, but I didn’t want to be superficial or arrogant about the truth of such religious belief. I wanted Bettina, Danny’s Jehovah’s Witness aunt, to have a real presence and sincerity, so that we respect her even in her apparent hardness. I grew up Orthodox Christian—a religious experience based on ritual, celebration and tradition, a form of religion very different from puritan and evangelical Protestantism. I am attracted to the discipline and commitment of Protestant faith but also repelled by the austerity and the rigidity of it. It may be my own fear or weakness, but I am not interested in the God of Judgment. Yet, I am fascinated by people who try and live their life with the burden of such a faith—fascinated and frightened by them in equal measure. All this is a roundabout way of trying to explain that I am a man of faith without a faith, and that the enigma of religious experience will be one that I will return to, I suspect, for the rest of my writing life.

my father entered the country in 1955. He worked on the hydroelectric schemes, worked on building the Olympic Village for the 1956 Melbourne games. The prejudice my parents experienced here was real. They were seen as “not quite white,” even though they were European Greeks. The White Australia Policy was only officially terminated in 1972—within my own lifetime.

In Barracuda, I wanted to trace my own continuing struggle with the questions of class. I am proud of coming from a working-class home, terrifically proud of it, but I also realize that I can’t assume that identity the way my parents could. They were laborers in factories. I am an educated man, I write for a living, I live and work and exist in another kind of world. I am so very glad for the opportunities that my parents’ hard work has afforded me—I’d be an idiot not to appreciate them—but I can’t help sometimes feel a melancholy at how far removed I am from that working-class world. I think Demet, Dan and I share that melancholy.

There’s an earlier review at

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  1. […] There’s another review at […]

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