Book Review: Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas


“Contemporary writers annoyed him, he found their worlds insular, their style self-conscious and ironic.”
Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas, page 331

Couldn’t have said it better myself. Except I would add the words “of literature” after “contemporary writers”. Contemporary writers of literature are a peculiar breed of writer who seem to think certain topics make their writing realistic and gritty. The reality is, however, that readers wonder why it is necessary to include them. Those topics include pooing, peeing and masturbation. Normal, everyday occurrences but also often distasteful, boring and unnecessary to the story being told.

Barracuda contains so many instances of pooing, peeing and masturbation that if they were taken out, the 513-page novel could probably have been reduced to a 213-page novel.

It’s the story of Daniel Kelly, known as Danny as a boy and Dan as an adult. He’s the son of working class parents and a champion swimmer who has won a scholarship to an elite and expensive high school. He feels like a fish out of water (pun intended) and he also feels the judgement of his rich, snobbish classmates. So he just swims. And he beats them. He beats everyone at the regional championships. He beats everyone at the state championships. He beats everyone at the national championships.

But when he places fifth at the Pan Pacific championships in Japan and ruins his chances of swimming at the Sydney Olympics, he throws a massive tantrum and has to be carried from the pool by swimming officials and then drugged up with sedatives. Because if he isn’t a champion swimmer who beats everyone, he doesn’t know who he is.

I actually have a paragraph written on one of my ideas boards that says, “Every time I hear ‘coming of age’, I want to vomit. How many ways are there to explore the whiny, self-indulgent years?” At least one more, I would suggest. Because this is Christos Tsiolkas’s way of exploring his whiny, self-indulgent years. There are obvious parallels between his main character and himself and I suspect if you traded “champion swimmer” for “ambitious writer” in the story, then the veil would be completely lifted. It would certainly explain why Danny, who shows no academic aptitude whatsoever, suddenly becomes a devourer of classic books when his swimming career doesn’t take him where he thought it would.

The novel is structured in a complex way. It starts at the end of the story using first person present tense about a man named Dan. The next chapter reverts to third person past tense twenty years before and tells a story about a boy named Danny on his first day at a private school. The book continues like this, the story of Dan going backwards as the story of Danny goes forwards until they meet in the middle like ships passing in the night and then continue on. The last two chapters are Dan just after the first chapter and Danny as a very young child learning to love the water. It took me a little while to figure this out and it was confusing at times, especially because the author sometimes jumps big periods in the main character’s life because he wants to put particular events in the forward narrative and not the backward narrative.

I sometimes think when disjointed narratives like this are used it is because the story isn’t strong enough to exist in a linear format. I definitely think that was the case here. The confusion it causes helps to mask the defects for a while, but once the reader has figured it out, it’s not enough to cover for what is lacking.

The only triumph of the book is the description and evocation of Melbourne in Australia where the story is primarily set. Anyone who has spent their childhood, teenage or even post-teenage years in Melbourne will recognise the place Tsiolkas describes. But it’s not enough. The characters are tedious and one-dimensional, the plot (if you can even call it that) is boring and banal, and the writing is long-winded, like the author was simply trying to fill pages but not thinking about whether it could have been said in ten sentences instead of ten paragraphs. The amount of swear words is appalling, dominated by the two worst (the c word and the f word – I don’t think you could have gone a page without coming across either one). And the main character is selfish in the extreme. He lacks empathy for everyone and only ever thinks of himself. And he never seems to learn anything.

When it came to deciding how many stars to give this book, I found myself comparing it to two other books I’ve read recently, Amnesia by Peter Carey (2 stars) and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (3 stars). I didn’t enjoy Amnesia at all and its portrayal of Australian cities and towns left it completely unrecognisable to someone who has lived in this country her whole life. Barracuda, on the other hand, was set in a Melbourne that I am completely familiar with, that made me wonder if Danny Kelly or Christos Tsiolkas hadn’t been living next door to me my whole life without my realising it. Which clearly made it better than Amnesia and better than two stars. But the book was also filled with characters that I really didn’t like, 513 pages of them, main, supporting and even those who only appeared on one page. Which clearly made it not as good as The Girl on the Train (which was filled with flawed characters I could have read about forever) and therefore not worth three stars.

If I could give it 2.5 stars, I would. Here on my blog I can. Over on Goodreads I can’t, so I gave it two stars there.

This is the second Christos Tsiolkas book I’ve read, the other being The Slap. He found great fame with The Slap. At the time it was one of those word of mouth books that everyone was reading, mostly because of its controversial initial subject, an adult hitting a naughty child that wasn’t his own. The notoriety was increased because it was adapted into a mini-series in Australia and then adapted again for US television. But I didn’t much like that book either.

I don’t think I’ll be reading any more Christos Tsiolkas books. Australian Bookseller & Publisher says of Christos Tsiolkas, “…there is not a more important writer working in Australia today.” I think that’s an insult to a great many Australian writers. And I don’t think it’s in any way justified.

2.5 stars

*First published on Goodreads 23 March 2016


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