Barracuda, Christos Tsiolkas
Published September 9th 2014 by Crown Publishing
Hardcover, 448 pages
Fourteen-year-old Daniel Kelly is special. Despite his upbringing in working-class Melbourne, he knows that his astonishing ability in the swimming pool has the potential to transform his life, silence the rich boys at the private school to which he has won a sports scholarship, and take him far beyond his neighborhood, possibly to international stardom and an Olympic medal. Everything Danny has ever done, every sacrifice his family has ever made, has been in pursuit of this dream. But what happens when the talent that makes you special fails you? When the goal that you’ve been pursuing for as long as you can remember ends in humiliation and loss?
Twenty years later, Dan is in Scotland, terrified to tell his partner about his past, afraid that revealing what he has done will make him unlovable. When he is called upon to return home to his family, the moment of violence in the wake of his defeat that changed his life forever comes back to him in terrifying detail, and he struggles to believe that he’ll be able to make amends. Haunted by shame, Dan relives the intervening years he spent in prison, where the optimism of his childhood was completely foreign.
Tender, savage, and blazingly brilliant, Barracuda is a novel about dreams and disillusionment, friendship and family, class, identity, and the cost of success. As Daniel loses everything, he learns what it means to be a good person—and what it takes to become one.
I’ll be honest and say I had a moment or two where I almost put Barracuda down, however, in the end I’m really glad that I chose not to. Once I started to get into this book I nearly couldn’t step away, despite the fact that it was an uncomfortable read at times. The language is harsh, the sexual descriptions graphic and the writing powerful. My heart ached for Danny and his family, and for his coach.
Barracuda takes us back and forth in time, beginning with Dan as an adult and then flashing back to Danny in the pool and as a young man. I liked the changes in time, though honestly I could have done without the scenes from his time in prison. I felt like Tsiolkas made the points of what Dan got out of his time in prison clear without my having to read those scenes.
Danny thinks-no he knows that he’s the best in the world. His vision of the future is all about the swimming and where it will take him in life. When he fails as a swimmer he becomes completely unmoored and adult Dan continues to suffer as a result. I kind of wanted to reach into the book and shake him at times to say: Find a focus! Find a life outside the pool! Whether he’s Dan or Danny, he’s an angry young man and I think that was part of my struggle reading this book. Danny hates the rich students at the school giving him a scholarship, he hates the “golden boys” that swim against him, much as he loves his family and friends he seems to hate them at times too. The anger becomes focused in Danny’s violence later and in the sex scenes felt really brutal to me.
Danny was driven and focused and I was captivated by the scenes with him in the water. Even when he is not winning the writing was beautiful:
The water would not love him as it had during the race; tomorrow it would once more be a force to battle, to master, to defeat.
I feel like it was the water that pulled me through Barracuda. The descriptions of his swimming were wonderful. I was carried along hoping for Dan’s redemption and for him to find peace from his shame. I walked away with a lighter heart than I expected at the conclusion for which I’m thankful.
Also, I know we have such an idealistic Australia that we picture as Americans but it was really good to read about a “real” Australia. It was important to read about class struggles, immigration and race and more than going to the beach and drinking beer in hostels. So for those reasons too this was an eye opening book for me. This was a hard read, but I am glad I saw it through as I am definitely still thinking about it.
All quotes were taken from an uncorrected galley proof subject to change in the final edition
Thank you NetGalley and Crown Publishing for this advance copy in exchange for an honest review.