Swim­mer strug­gles to stay afloat

High hopes and dreams turn into im­plo­sion

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Books - MONIQUE PO­LAK

“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.”


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