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Reviews

Barracuda

Rebecca Foster

Christos Tsiolkas

Atlantic Books, 405pp

After the succès de scandale of The Slap, which won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize in 2009 and was longlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize, it was always going to be a challenge for the Australian novelist Christos Tsiolkas to produce a worthy follow- up. While Barracuda might not have quite the raw power or virtuosic style of its predecessor, it expands on Tsiolkas's perennial themes of race, class, sexuality and morality - questioning, in particular, how to be a good person when coping with the aftermath of violence.

Barracuda's main character, Daniel Kelly, is a swimmer. More than anything else, that fact defines him. Water is both home and hazard; 'Real water punishes you ... Real water can kill you,' yet 'It is bending for me, shifting for me. It is welcoming me. I am swimming. I belong here.' Much like Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding, however, Barracuda is not a 'sports book', but rather makes sport the lens for observing competition, failure and homoerotic relationships.

The action opens in the nearpast in Glasgow, with Danny drifting apart from his boyfriend, Clyde, and planning to return to Melbourne; it then leaps backwards to 1994 to chronicle Danny's first day on scholarship at a posh new boys' school. It is the best place for his swimming career, but his parents worry about him fitting in. The Kelly family is decidedly working class: his Scots-Irish father is a long-distance truck driver and staunch liberal supporter; his Greek mother is a hairdresser. The swimming coach encourages Danny to defend himself against racial insults and bullying. And indeed, Danny decides 'hate was what he would use, what he would remember, what would make him a better swimmer.'

The Slap was noteworthy for employing eight narrative perspectives, and once again Tsiolkas crafts an intricate structure that intensifies the story of suburban ennui. To begin with, chapters alternate between the forward motion of the 'before' - Danny's ill-fated 1990s swimming career, told in the past tense and the third person - and the backward stretch of the 'after', as Dan's first-person, present-tense sections reveal how his life fell apart. Those two separate and opposite trajectories meet and switch techniques after the pivotal incident of violence, the night of the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony in 2000, creating a sort of figure eight shape. This may sound complicated, but the narration is so fluid that attentive readers may not even notice.

Daniel is so palpably a different person after this incident that he insists on a new name: Danny was the enthusiastic 'golden boy' destined for Olympic glory, until a fifth place finish at the 1997 Pan Pacific games in Japan crushed his prospects; Dan is a loser, a shame to his family. We soon learn that this Dan spent twoyears in prison for assault, and it was there that he finally admitted his homosexuality to himself. Now he is struggling to rebuild his life while working at a supermarket, volunteering with disabled adults and developing a taste for alcohol. With names so essential to identity, it is telling that Danny also picked up two nicknames in his time as a swimmer: 'psycho' and 'barracuda'.

Tsiolkas is fond of his macho, in-your-face titles, and if Barracuda is not an entirely successful one, it does convey the essential elements of swimming and menace. Dan is unpredictable and aggressive, prone to violent, sexualized fantasies - even involving family members. Had Salman Rushdie not already claimed them, one could imagine two titles serving perfectly here: Fury or, especially, Shame. Dan is ashamed of his failure and of his crime; he is terrified of being thought common or 'slovenly' by his rich, white friends. He recalls 'my shame is always there, and so is hate, they are one with my blood and with my lungs'; the emotional burden is 'Like carrying a house on your back.'

A common criticism levelled against The Slap was that its characters were all irredeemably awful - immoral, thoughtless and self-absorbed. This, then, comes to be the central question of Barracuda. Dan has been a disappointment, squandering chances and making mistakes; is he, too, irredeemable? 'I am marked', Dan insists, 'the scar of who I was and who I am is permanently part of me'. He sees no possibility of restoration; 'There's not enough love in the world to cleanse, to eradicate, to scour away the dishonour of who he is.'

In some ways Daniel Kelly seems like a classic tragic hero, undone by moral errors. Of course, his name also evokes Ned Kelly, legendary Australian outlaw. Yet there is a greater weight of literary precedent behind him: Dan sounds like a Dostoevsky character when he muses, 'You construct a ladder and you climb that ladder, out of the hell you have created for yourself and back into the real world. That is atonement'. It may be impossible for Dan to literally turn back time, but Tsiolkas's narrative strategy suggests that prelapsarian life can be regained, if only in memory. 'I can't bend and shape time the way I can water,' Dan regrets, but Barracuda does just that - its expert past-present slipperiness culminating in an astonishingly Joycean chapter reclaiming Danny's childhood.

In a novel so obsessed with identity and class, Dan realises that 'Belonging ... was the wrong question'; rather, the vital question is 'was he - Danny Kelly, Psycho Kelly, Danny the Greek, Dino, Dan, Barracuda - was he a good man?' Like the brain-injured patients he treats through aqua therapy, he must reconstruct his life from nothing, striving to make amends, both financially and emotionally, for the hurt he has caused. Though it may at times seem like a distant dream, still Dan can imagine that 'forgiveness was like flying, that it made you soar.'