Readers familiar with Christos Tsiolkas’ previous four novels, especially the widely acclaimed The Slap (2008), might approach his latest, Barracuda, with great anticipation. Not having read any of the others, I did not know what to expect and even after finishing Barracuda, I am still not sure what to feel about this complex, but disappointing novel.
Set for the greater part in Australia, it tells the story of Daniel Kelly who goes by the nickname of the title. A highly talented swimmer, Daniel receives a scholarship to a prestigious private school. Coming from a Greek-immigrant, working-class background, he has a great chip on his shoulder and feels like a complete outsider among the rich and spoilt beautiful kids.
With the support of his coach Frank Torma, he begins to prove himself in the water, and following the coach’s advice to “always answer back when you receive an insult”, he gains respect from some of the boys on the squad. But when all his dreams are crushed and he fails to deliver on his promise to become a great champion, Daniel’s world spirals horrifically out of control.
Told alternatively in the first and third person with Daniel as the focaliser, and jumping to and fro between different periods and events in his life, Barracuda examines the lethal whirlpool Daniel finds himself in after his failure and the reasons leading up to it.
As the narrative zooms in and out of the collage of Daniel’s life, one has the uncomfortable impression that the author is trying too hard to make Daniel’s breakdown and its consequences believable. Throughout the novel, I questioned his motives and actions and could never really grasp either, thus it was nearly impossible to identify or empathise with him.
The fact that it occasionally took quite a while to find one’s feet and connect the dots because of the non-chronological storytelling technique did not help in the matter either. Stylistically, there is a certain irritating, breathless repetitiveness in the novel, which awakens a longing in one to edit the text instead of getting lost in it.
Tsiolkas also has a tendency to describe bodily functions with a frankness and attention to detail that goes beyond challenging accepted norms. One scene in particular is not only disturbing, but also alienating. One wonders what the author wanted to achieve with it.
Thematically, Barracuda is a mixed bag. The novel focuses on the different relationships Daniel forms with his family members, friends and lovers, but also takes up issues of class, sexuality, identity, migration, religion, same-sex parenting and xenophobia. The characters have a tendency of discussing these topics at length, mostly without convincing arguments. They are not integrated well enough into the narrative not to appear didactic.
The novel has been received to enthusiastic critical and popular acclaim, but at more than 500 pages, Barracuda is one of only a few novels I’ve truly struggled to finish.
Review first published in the Cape Times on 11 April 2014, p. 28.