I feel it would be disingenuous of me to review Barracuda, the latest novel by Australian author Christos Tsiolkas, seeing as how it is dedicated to me.
But what a book it is.
Barracuda is the story of Danny Kelly, a working class boy born to a Greek-Australian mother and father of Scottish ancestry, who has the makings of a swimming champion. Danny wins a scholarship to an exclusive private school, where among the ‘filthy rich’ and the ‘golden boys’, he feels his outsider status acutely. He invests everything in winning, in being the strongest, the fastest, the best. But Danny fails. And with failure comes violent rage, followed by crippling shame. Danny has to ‘discover his taste and his desire anew’ — to figure out how to be a good man.
I was familiar with the main events and the shape of the story from having read an early draft. But this did nothing to diminish my experience of reading the finished novel. There were times the writing took my breath away, when I had to put the book down and take a moment.
I want to say I was immersed in this book, but because it is called Barracuda and it is about a swimmer, I don’t want that to sound like a bad pun. In fact, Tsiolkas himself draws a parallel between immersion in water and in reading when describing Danny’s post-school discovery of books:
Danny had discovered…that books did not exist outside of the body and only in mind, but that words were breath, that they were experienced and understood through the inseparability of mind and body, that words were the water and reading was swimming. Just as he has in water, he could lose himself in reading: mind and body became one.
Christos is on the record as crediting me with inspiring this book because I challenged him to write from the part of his character I know to be humane and deeply compassionate. He said in a recent interview: ‘[Angela] was the one who said, “You are a humanist, you really care about questions of compassion and empathy. Your novels have shied away from really, kind of, you know, just creating a good character.”
This was not, as he goes on to explain, a reaction to the unlikability of his characters in his wildly successful previous novel The Slap. Rather I was challenging Christos, who I know works at being a good man, to write about that.
It was an unexpected honour when he chose to dedicate the book to me.
For less subjective takes on Barracuda, try this review by Demet Divaroren, who says:
Reading Barracuda is like treading on a stony shore. It crashes into our consciousness like waves and unsettles us, challenges everything we are. It is unflinching and exposes the in between spaces of Australian society.
Or this review by Peter Craven, who writes of Barracuda
It swims, it soars, it is full of sap and feeling. It will enrage you, it will engage you, and it will fill you with pity and wonder.
Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas (2013) is published by Allen & Unwin.