Swimmer struggles to stay afloat
High hopes and dreams turn into implosion
“He was the strongest, the fastest, the best.”
These words are repeated like a mantra in Christos Tsiolkas’s new novel Barracuda. Barracuda is the nickname the other boys at a posh Australian private school give Danny Kelly. Danny’s working-class parents could never afford to send him to the school. He’s there on scholarship because of his swimming — and his single-minded desire to come in first.
Tsiolkas understands that stories about failure are far more compelling than ones about victory. That’s why he does not allow his protagonist to make it to the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics. Barracuda is a novel about what can happen to us when our dreams fail to come true and when it feels as if there is nothing left to hope for. Though this novel has its flaws — it lacks subtlety, occasionally teetering on the brink of melodrama — Barracuda still makes for an enthralling read.
For most of this novel, Danny is difficult to like. When he’s winning, he’s cocky and selfabsorbed, unappreciative of the sacrifices his family — especially his mother — makes to accom- By Christos Tsiolkas HarperCollins modate his swimming.
The narration shifts from first to third person, and from the present — Danny is 30 and has served prison time for a violent crime — to the past, when he was a teenage competitive swimmer. These shifts allow Tsiolkas to explore the complex theme of identity and how, despite the passage of time, our pasts remain an intrinsic part of who we are.
From the moment he turns up at private school, Danny is aware he does not belong: “The other guys all knew each other; they had been destined to be friends from the time they were embryos in their mothers’ wombs.”
When he is invited to the other boys’ homes, he feels ashamed of his family’s humble circumstances.
Danny is also confused about his sexuality, unable to make sense of his attraction to a classmate — and to the classmate’s elegant older sister.
It’s only in the water that Danny finds some peace: “then it came, the sense that he was no longer conscious of the individual parts of his body ... the stillness came, and he was the water.”
But when Danny stops winning, his fragile sense of self implodes and he gives up swimming altogether. And then, in order to distinguish himself at school and to prevent the other boys from ridiculing or pitying him, Danny becomes the worst kind of bully, terrorizing the younger boys.
It isn’t until late in the book that the crime that landed Danny in prison is revealed. But it is in prison that Danny finally begins to come to terms with who he is and who he can still become. A brutal, but passionate relationship with another inmate confirms for Danny that he is gay.
Danny has a lot of amends to make — to his friends, family, and to the man he nearly killed. After a series of dead-end jobs, Danny finds work as an aide to men who have had severe brain damage.
Just as these men need to learn to speak and move again, Danny, too, must find a way to start over, to make things right. He begins to understand that there is life after defeat, “that everything could be relearned … it could be taught and it could be learned, how to navigate the world again.”