Barracuda, by Christos Tsiolkos*****

barracudaDanny Kelly is a swimming prodigy, and he is elevated beyond his humble working class origins by a sports scholarship. When he is in the water, he can fly. The water parts for him. His coach believes, and he himself is certain, that he is the strongest, fastest, best swimmer in Australia and perhaps the world. No one can beat him. His teammates nickname him “Barracuda”.

My thanks go to edelweiss books and above the treeline for the free peek.

The “golden boys” from the privileged classes live in the dormitory and come from all over the nation. The tuition renders it an exclusive place, one where the very wealthy can send their silver-spoon-fed young men without worry that they will consort with the wrong friends or marry below their station. Danny is twice-over alienated, because not only does he go home to his own little two-parent, two-wage-earner bungalow while his classmates head to the dorms, but he is gay. When some of his friends pair off into heterosexual couples, he keeps his own sexuality close to his vest. After all, he isn’t primarily gay; he is primarily a swimmer. He is stronger, faster, and better.

Early in the story the narrative breaks from present to past to in between, and so we know that right now he is an adult who works with brain-damaged adults. Between his youthful dream of an Olympic gold medal—at least one—and the present, he has been sent to prison for nearly killing a man. We are fed the pieces in small servings, and because we bond so immediately with the protagonist, it is agonizing as we slowly fill in the missing puzzle parts. What happened? What in the world happened?

It’s really dark out there. In fact, the cowardly reader in me was ready to jump ship and abandon the novel, given that it was so early in the story and yet things had already gone so wrong, but I couldn’t look away. This was up there with The Thornbirds for me. I can’t believe this book hasn’t been heaped with awards. My only possible explanation is that it is too edgy for the wider world; if so, it’s a shame. Tsiolkos deserves renown for what he has achieved here.

Another reviewer has noted the prolific use of the c*** word, one I could cheerfully see lost to the English language forever and always. The general use of profanity is consistent with the book’s harshness and although it makes it a more painful read, the discomfort we feel is part of the author’s design, and appropriate. Nevertheless, I wish he had chosen just about any word other than that one. Even with it, though, Barracuda is a strong, strong novel.

Dan’s journey is a rough one. In prison and out, words fail him, and he is constantly misunderstood. He lives for routine and is happy with menial labor after prison, but the entire family’s hopes and dreams have been fastened to him for so long that they can’t drop their high expectations. He finds himself avoiding his family because the weight of his failure and what it has done to the family who sacrificed for him is unbearable. He is still so angry, and there are important aspects of his life he has to resolve before it can be different. I’m trying to avoid spoilers here, because you have to read this book.

Danny’s family is so complex and so well-developed that I felt as if they were right here in the room with me. Of particular significance is the relationship that unfolds between himself and his cousin Dennis. The dignity of the story as it approaches its climax is breathtaking. Don’t assume anything here. There is no book like this one, at least not that I have found or heard of, and I have had my ear to the ground.

My one criticism is that the last chapter is superfluous. The story is over at the end of the second-to-last chapter, and that is where it should have stopped.
When all is said and done, we learn by following Dan Kelly’s life that there is more than one kind of victory, and there is more than one way to become a hero. Barracuda is a stellar novel by a talented writer; I’ll be on the lookout for more of his work. As for you, do yourself a favor and get this book.

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