Teenager Danny Kelly is poised for greatness as a swimmer and he knows it. He possesses all the physical requirements to succeed (the technique, strength, and stamina) but he also possesses the mental attributes (a supreme self-confidence and determination). He has the killer instinct in the swimming pool, but unfortunately, Danny doesn’t confine that impulse to the pool. He is a wild man, ‘the barracuda’ of the title, and sometimes that aggressive, cruel nature erupts. Danny can be dangerous. The novel is structured in two separate narrative strands, and they are doled out as alternative chapters. In the first strand, Danny has won a scholarship to an exclusive Melbourne private high school that boasts a swimming program and a coach that aim to mould him into an Olympic champion. But in the second strand, Danny is no more. He now goes by Dan. Some disaster derailed his dreams and he no longer swims. Instead, he has been in gaol
This is Christos Tsiolkas’s first novel since the international success of The Slap. It is a big book at more than 500 pages but it is highly readable and absolutely engrossing (though curiously the opening chapter is rather flat and doesn’t exactly hook you). Those readers who can’t abide a main character who is often unlikable should probably look elsewhere. Dan/Danny is complicated and flawed. Personally, that is exactly the sort of character I want to settle down with for 500 plus pages and the main character’s complexity is one of the novel’s great strengths. In the second narrative strand, Dan is badly damaged, though more aware of his own needs and limitations. His sexuality also comes to the fore in this second part. After the stint in gaol, he has developed a taste for gay sex. As a teenage schoolboy, he was basically asexual, always conserving his energy, and with an occasional crush on a girl. Tsiolkas’s usual theme of class is explored against the privileged private school setting; while multicultural Australia is represented across the diverse cast of characters. Danny is himself the offspring of a Greek hairdresser mother and Scottish truck-driving father.
Following up the enormous success of The Slap would have been no easy feat, but Tsiolkas has risen to the challenge cleverly. The subject of a swimming champion and the book’s sheer readability give it the commercial edge his publisher undoubtedly hoped for. Yet, he hasn’t muted the gay sexuality or political sensibility that he is also well-known for. Barracuda does include a few moments of graphic gay sexual desire that may startle some of his new book club readers! Tsiolkas has delivered a book that should satisfy his many admirers and also win him even more – it deserves to be the novel everyone is reading and talking about this summer.
Barracuda is published today in Australia, Wednesday 23rd October 2013.
For a limited time, you can buy a copy $5 cheaper from the Bookshop Darlinghurst – click on any image of the book cover to view on their website.