Book review: Barracuda (Christos Tsiolkas)

I have always loved books set in Australia. I don’t know why. It’s probably Bryce Courtenay’s doing. And then Paullina Simons’. And now … yup … it’s all down to Christos Tsiolkas, whose fourth novel, The Slap, rocked my cynical literary socks.

With its unapologetic depiction of Australia’s racial, sexual and familial politics, The Slap astonished me. So I grabbed Barracuda, Tsiolkas’ next effort, with no small measure of glee. And it didn’t disappoint.

(In fact, I told my husband that I was taking special pains to read it slowly, so it would take longer to finish. And when it did, I was utterly bereft.)

If you’ve read The Slap – even if you haven’t – you’ll know that it kicks off with its major event: a stranger klapping someone else’s bratty kid at a barbecue.

In contrast, Barracuda makes you wait (almost) until the end before revealing its trump card. A very different experience. A very different cast of characters. A very different ebb and flow. And a very, very different portrayal of conflict.

In The Slap, we’re voyeurs to the ugly conflicts within and between ethnic communities. In Barracuda, we see the ugly conflict within a young man’s own soul.

Daniel Kelly is a working class ‘wog’ who gets into a posh school on a swimming scholarship, where he stands out among schoolmates with ‘the clearest skin he had ever seen and the best cut hair and the whitest and most perfect teeth.’

This experience moulds him into ‘Barracuda’: a violent teen for whom winning is the only way to deal with the teasing of his schoolmates and the sacrifices of his family.

Along the way, we encounter the brutal physicality of competitive sport and the pitiless grip of failure and shame that comes when you‘re no longer a super-jock.

What’s so interesting about the way Tsiolkas writes is that, as another reviewer put it, “[he] is…clear-eyed about the way hatred can hold communities together. He calls racism by its name, but is not ashamed to dig around in the experience of racism and its effects.” And all of this culminates in an ending that’s both believable and life-affirming.

If you loved Courtenay’s Australian novels of yester-year, Tully by Paullina Simons or Tsiolkas’sThe Slap, read Barracuda. It’s utterly brilliant.