Sunday 21 January 2018

Books: Australian author making waves again after 'The Slap'

Fiction: Barracuda, Christos Tsiolkas Atlantic Books, £12.99, pbk, 528 pages

Going for gold: Christos Tsiolkas
Going for gold: Christos Tsiolkas

It is almost six years now since the publication of Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas's international bestseller, The Slap, the triggering incident of which was a parent's attempt to discipline another couple's child.

That arrived, rather aptly, like a punch in the face. With its unflinching dissection of contemporary Australia's sexual and racial politics, all written in blunt, swear-laden prose, the novel left a trail of controversy in its wake (not to mention an excellent eight-part TV series starring a host of home-grown talent).

Tsiolkas's latest punch is packed in the form of his new novel Barracuda, which follows the rise and devastating fall of swimming prodigy Daniel Kelly. We begin with Daniel's first day at a posh Melbourne private school, for which he has earned a lucrative sports scholarship. But Daniel's working-class background, his dark skin, his gruff manners all set him apart from the other immaculate boys.

These highschool trials and tribulations are intercut with the story of the adult Daniel, now living in Scotland with his partner, Clyde. However, once more he feels like a fish out of water, the parallel discomfort of his homesickness resonating across decades and indeed continents.

Yet, for the teenage Daniel at least, the water is the only place where it all makes sense. Here barriers -- racial, class-based -- are rendered fluid by his obvious prowess in the pool. So we chart his ascendance towards sporting glory, each training session, each victory described with electric detail. And yet, in the glimpses of his future-self lurks a darkness which makes us doubt whether Daniel's dreams do in fact come to pass.

While all this sounds like excellent fodder for a meaty, visceral, coming-of-age novel, where Tsiolkas's own prowess shines is in his ability to render one boy's tale that of an entire country. For just as Daniel (also known as Danny, Dan, Dino, Kelly, Psycho, and of course, Barracuda) struggles with his sense of self, so too does Tsiolkas seek to question what exactly defines the Australian nation.

Racism, colonialism, religion and sporting hysteria are all mercilessly probed. Indeed, it is no coincidence that Daniel's ultimate fall from grace coincides with the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony, nationwide bellows of Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi stealing across the catastrophic night.

Homosexuality, emigration and disability also feature, all challenges to that ultimate ideal of being comfortable in one's own skin. And indeed skin, bone, flesh and blood smear across every page. Sculpted bodies, naked bodies, dying bodies, dismembered bodies are all depicted with Tsiolkas's trademark unflinching prose. Ironically, the only place where the writing stumbles is in the pool itself, the descriptions of Daniel's swimming often overly laboured.

But the fluidity of the novel's engineering, leaping between continents and decades, intimate failures and national triumphs, marks Barracuda as another fearless hard-hitter from Tsiolkas's hand.


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Irish Independent

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