After enjoying The Slap, I looked forward to reading Christos Tsiolkas’ next novel, Barracuda. Barracuda is the story of Danny Kelly, a young Australian competitive swimmer and his journey through the trials of training and competing as a teenager through to failing to make the grade and how he copes, or rather doesn’t cope, with that failure.
Danny’s ambition is to win gold and glory in the Sydney Olympics and his talents gain him a scholarship to an elite Melbourne private school. Unlike The Slap, where the major dramatic event occurs in the first chapter, Barracuda builds over the years but with the knowledge that Danny does not succeed always being there for the reader as the chapters alternate between Danny’s arrogant youth and his broken future. The nastiness he faces in competing and which he dishes out in particular to his father is always seen through the lens of the failure to come even as he builds a shell of complete confidence.
Just as The Slap was a commentary on class and race in modern Australia, so too Barracuda. Tsiolkas again excels in observation and characterisation, this time with a more extended forensic focus on a single character. He makes Danny both likeable and unlikeable, just as he does with Australia itself. Ultimately it becomes an examination of resilience. How the competitive Danny didn’t have it, so couldn’t succeed or cope with failure, and how he acquired it through having no choice but to embrace his failure and the disgraceful act he committed when all around were caught up in the jingoistic fervour of the Sydney Olympics which he had longed for and was not part of.
However, where The Slap both felt a little unfinished in failing to flesh out some of the characters and closed off a little too neatly in the final sections about the young characters finishing their exams, Barracuda is more satisfying and less trite. With the World Cup coming up it gives the reader an opportunity to look at the sacrifices which are made for the pursuit of success and the pressure that comes from it. At least it might give you pause for thought and some empathy if England crash out in another penalty shoot out.