Find your passion, we’re told, and set a goal in life. What can happen if you don’t reach that goal is the theme that Christos Tsiolkas sets out to explore in his compelling and occasionally disturbing new novel “Barracuda.” Danny Kelly is a teenaged swimming champion in Melbourne, Australia, so good that a private school in a rich suburb offers him a full scholarship for so he can train and compete, and get an education. Danny is completely dedicated to nurturing his talent, training four hours a day before and after school, but comes from a working class family – his father is a truck driver, his mother a hairdresser – and feels out of place. Danny also has two other areas of difference – his mother is Greek, and he has inherited some of her dark coloring, and she comes from a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses – her family has virtually disowned her since she left the religion to marry Danny’s father.
Danny struggles with school work, and he struggles with his relationships: at the new school, he is able to maintain some of his old friendships, but they are strained. His new ones are based on intimidation and hard work – but the qualities that serve him well in the pool do not work so well out of it. School, parents, coach: everyone is proud of his successes, and Danny is able to skimp on his schoolwork for a while, and his time in the pool and traveling to swim meets means that it doesn’t matter that his relationships with his family deteriorate. Danny feels unsupported by his father, who resents all the time Danny’s training demands, and Danny grows apart from his younger sister, Regan, and brother, Theo. But when success doesn’t happen Danny falls apart quite publicly.
Much of the story is told from Danny’s viewpoint – Tsiolkas switches in and out of a first person narrative – and Danny’s inner life is richly detailed, both in the pool and out of it. Danny grows and changes and eventually figures out two things that he knows he should have learned in school: the importance of words, and the importance in life of structure. The book is not all about Danny – Tsiolkas uses Danny’s very bitter reaction to explore a variety of themes, including Australia’s isolation from much of the rest of the world, its history both as colonized and colonizer, its issues of class and color, and its occasional complacency. These come to a head when Sydney hosts the 2000 Summer Olympic Games, long after Danny’s swimming days are done. Danny’s crushing sense of failure because he does not represent his country at those games meets the rest of the country’s joy that it has performed well on the world stage.
There are many ways to read this book. Danny’s surname hints at an allegory about rebellion during Australia’s growth and development. There’s a story of growth and redemption in two generations. What do you think you’ll remember best? Let us know in the comments.
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