Book Title: Barracuda (Standalone)
Author: Christos Tsiolkas
Number of pages: 528
“He asked the water to lift him, to carry him, to avenge him. He made his muscles shape his fury, made every stroke declare his hate. And the water obeyed; the water would give him his revenge. No one could beat him, no one came close.”
His whole life Danny Kelly’s only wanted one thing: to win Olympic gold. Everything he’s ever done – every thought, every dream, every action – takes him closer to that moment of glory, of vindication, when the world will see him for what he is: the fastest, the strongest and the best. His life has been a preparation for that moment.
His parents struggle to send him to the most prestigious private school with the finest swimming program; Danny loathes it there and is bullied and shunned as an outsider, but his coach is the best and knows Danny is, too, better than all those rich boys, those pretenders. Danny’s win-at-all-cost ferocity gradually wins favour with the coolest boys – he’s Barracuda, he’s the psycho, he’s everything they want to be but don’t have the guts to get there. He’s going to show them all.
“He would be first, everything would be alright when he came first, all would be put back in place. When he thought of being the best, only then did he feel calm.”
(an excerpt re: Goodreads @ Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas)
Should this book be picked up? the tl;dr spoiler-less review:
- A coming of age story with converging perspectives to recount the then and now of Daniel Kelly’s life.
- Prose is expertly versed, imaginative and evocative, even if long-winded.
- Characters are brutally honest, real, and provoke both negative/positive emotions.
- The plotting is seemingly basic but manages to capture a variety of genres.
I am perplexed.
But what I am sure of is that I’m a bit disappointed that the book cover (and its title by proxy) could have made me believe that this kid had some pseudo-merman powers or the like. Seriously.
However, the synopsis is certainly poignant. And if the blurb is of indication of the writing in this book then you’re certainly a winner for picking this book up because everything is meticulously described. To expand upon this point: you just didn’t somehow load up this blog (although that is cool beans as well)—no, that would be too easy… through the reflection of the backlit screen your eyes graze a query into the deepest desires for knowledge. A white manifestation of your soul skeptically hovers, looming, unsure, and you begin to wonder what the heck I’m talking about now…) Yeah, that’s my take on how overbearing and fluffy some descriptions tended to be. But I guess there’s substance in that so I can’t complain that much.
I will admit: I don’t usually gravitate towards novels fixated on a cultural-contemporary nature. Actually, I don’t remember how I came across Barracuda in the first place. But with Sochi (and Olympic feels) rapidly approaching, I felt this to be a great fit to explore the battle of an athlete’s mentality; and all of the inherent struggles and fix-ins that came with it.
Let’s dive right in.
Disclaimer: Potential spoilers inherent to this review have been minimized with exceptions to quotes.
“I am the strongest, the fastest, the best.”
This story is about growing up and finding one’s identity in a culturally stagnant society where success is pride and pride is status. It’s about the rise and the fall and the progression of character building conveyed through a parable of competitive swimming; seemingly a national identity. Value creation by victory and success can propel an individual to break free of a less-than-stellar lifestyle but it is not the sole defining moment of one’s character and their life. The issues challenged by Barracuda revolve around the idea that self-worth is a malleable entity that transforms and influences ones inward-and-outward actions and thoughts. For Daniel Kelly; an outsider looking in with dreams bigger than his working-class family, his worth is believed to be tangibly correlated to his success. But once your defined success is challenged and lost, what can you look to to remeasure yourself against the world?
[He dived into the water and all the pieces came together: everything was liquid and it was in being liquid that everything became clear. The water parted for him, the water caressed him, the water obeyed him. He swam, he propelled himself through the water; the muscles that moved as they should, the power of his limbs, his lungs and his heart which breathed and beat in a harmony that was clean and efficient. Only in the water were he and the world unsullied. He swam, far beyond mind, aware of only body; and then, coming up for air, he had left even his body behind, and though the exertion continued, though every muscle kept working as it should have, he was wondering if on those long drives through desert and plain, through morning and night, his father’s body didn’t also seamlessly forget pain and forget time—that the drive, like the swim, was the only constant, the heart beating and the lungs breathing, and whether the long desert roads were liquid as well, not heat and dust but clear and clean like water]
The narrative presents Daniel Kelly served up two ways: as Danny (primarily teenage years, pre-failure) and Dan (throughout adulthood, post-failure). The juxtaposition in the alternating perspectives provide readers a sense of converging paths: an ambitious rise to status, and the other seeking liberation and understanding for his enraging past. As a tool for storytelling and implicitly character development, Daniel is being built up (successfully or not) from A to B—from Danny to Dan, but it is through breaking down the building blocks of his character that we can begin to understand the myriad of issues surmounting to how he views himself in the present. However, while the changes in tones were refreshing, I faced a great deal of confusion when the voicing changed (despite being distinguishable tenses). Although major dates were utilised, they would soon be forgotten as pages were read on and the confusion lingered since it was introduced non-chronologically.
As the story progresses, there’s an increasing understanding of who Daniel Kelly was and who he became to be. This wasn’t particularly a page-turning type of book for me since I didn’t care or sympathise too much about Daniel as a character since you essentially know fragments of his outward-shell in present time before he even realizes it himself. But there’s always that off-chance. I’ll elaborate further below. Only in a few occasions throughout did I find myself rampantly flipping through the pages.
[That’s what I learned in there, that was the most important lesson: that I did something wrong and that I had to pay for what I did. You construct a ladder and you climb that ladder, out of the hell you have created for yourself and back into the real world. That is atonement, a word I discovered in there; it is in such places that the word resides and makes sense.]
If there’s one facet of the narrative that I particularly enjoyed, it would be following Danny/Dan’s voice (and all the variants in-between) with the infinite possibilities of thoughts and reason. And it is this that stands out from typical one-dimensional POV thought trains of lead protagonists. I know, you’re calling me a hypocrite for my earlier “anti-fluff” statement, but let me explain. When you see a mahogany chair, most times, it is what it is: just a wooden chair. The step further is when the seemingly basic tangents into a multitude of other emotion-induced thoughts. That is what I appreciated because the mind works overtime to perceive simple things in complex ways. Everything being detailed was meticulous, albeit lengthy, but never downplayed in its world-building. I’m sure I could have done without the repetitive phrasing that sounded like ritualistic meditations and other sections that dragged along longer than I felt it needed to be.
[You had to give it back. Hurt them before they hurt you.]
Personally, a major issue I had with how the narrative was played out revolved around Danny/Dan not being as likable as initially conceived (re: initial thought of the synopsis). This book had the potential to portray and chase that American (Australian) dream while undergoing a metamorphosis of mental and physical capacity to reach that point. But there was no obligation to evaluate that particular layer of story-telling because it was more about the underlying darker feeling of alienation once it sets in. But rarely did I feel any form of connection and empathetic understanding for Daniel as a character. I mean I get why he chose to do what he did but I also don’t really get it at all. Sure, he understands that to climb the metaphorical hierarchy in his country, he needed to gain power through a do-whatever-it-takes selfish persona. But I didn’t find that being self-absorbed with erratic behaviour to be a trait that I could really grasp onto. This is particularly true when things started going south and he experienced failure despite hyping himself up to be the best. Moreover, his reactions were a bit contrived for me that it offers me nothing more than a situation of single-minded youth looking toward failure and social embarrassment as something near-impossible to recover from. That once you’re living an inadequate life of isolation (seemingly determinant by largely himself), he feels warranted to have a free pass to create social havoc fueled by the underpinning of bottled rage.
[At that moment he realised that it hadn’t all been about being better and faster and stronger; that hadn’t been all he’d wanted. It had also been to make a mark, to be a photograph and an image, to be a record and a name. To be a name. There was no mark and there never would be. No one knew his name.]
Hmmm, wait a second, he may be on to something. Maybe.
Maybe this was Tsiolkas’ intention to begin with: to create a character that I’d be more-than-happy to dislike but surely able to sympathize with on his path to overcome adversity and find an avenue toward redemption. If that’s the case, then he’s smart about tackling the choice to push the limits of a reader and their immediate care to grab hold onto something of familiarity and relatable in crafting a meaningful and compelling story with. Because there weren’t flaws in the prose per se but it was more about the structural and thematic choices that made this novel fairly difficult to review. This is a thinker in many ways despite my wavering concern for the protagonist.
On a superficial level, the raw nature surrounding the sexual contexts may not be as minute and deftly described as people would probably enjoy. Tsiolkas’ leaves no room for evasive sexual innuendos. It’s explicit and likely unwarranted by many. But it actually works given the interwoven context of discovering himself for the first time and all over again. And unlike changing relationships between his family, friends and his rise and fall, his sexual tendencies have remained quite constant. So that’s something.
[So I don’t say anything about my past; instead I tell him about now. I hope that the now is enough.]
In terms of other voices, the ensemble featured individuals from in all walks of his life that both neatly and crudely exposes them to Daniel Kelly’s past and present life. There is detailing in the depth of familial status as an overarching theme influencing his path to redemption. Parallels are easily drawn between his immediate family’s inclusion and acceptance to his own struggle in life and his relationship that extends outward. I appreciated Frank Torma despite the looming possibility of enjoyment in being around children. He encompassed both his parents in a positive light and played a benefactor to Daniel’s revival. Alternatively, there is so much honesty and realness in the relationship between the trifecta of Demet, Daniel, and Luke that their presence together (or even simply in pairs) was the most enjoyable for me to follow.
[He was not the strongest, not the fastest, he was not the best—he was not anyone at all, but this son and this grandson. This was where he started, this was where he began.]
In the end, I still don’t know how I should feel about Tsiolkas’ Barracuda. The ending wrap up felt lacklustre and rushed (i.e. Regan) albeit the last scene was one that could be from a movie. It was pretty amazing. And if this novel is of any close representation of Australia then I guess I got a good lesson on national culture and its effect on dispensable athletes. Otherwise, I guess the book is a thought-provoking piece which questions the make-up of the human character and how it will change for the better if you look to it.
But I’m still perplexed. So…
[Not now is enough, not now is all he needs. One day at a time.]
I tried to get this review out much sooner than today but I hit so many roadblocks reading it during the holiday season.
Let me know what your thoughts are and feel free to refute me because this was one read that has so many interpretations for the choice of genres it touches base with.
Have a safe and rad new year.