Welcome to the Monthly Book.
Each month Ramona Koval chooses a book, provides reading notes and posts a video interview.
BARRACUDA – Christos Tsiolkas
The Monthly Book for November is Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda, a big-hearted social realist novel set in Melbourne. You might have read Tsiolkas’ previous novel, 2008’s The Slap; his analysis of middle-class Australian culture and its relationship to the subcultures around it was a worldwide success.
This new novel is about success and failure, and what it means to be a good man.
Danny, a young teenager from a working-class family, has a dream of sporting success and a body that will help him achieve it. Like many young men in this position, he is given access to a great school, a passionate coach and the chance to make a heroic dash for the prize. But at what cost to his family, his friends and his sense of what is right?
Danny finds he can’t always achieve what he sets out to do, and the shame that comes with this is the subject of his struggle. He is gay in a group of straights, working class in a group of well-to-do boys, a wog in a sea of skips. Why can’t his parents be more like those of his new friends? What does it mean to be really different, when your body won’t do what you want it to do? And who do you trust in this life: your mentors, your parents, your friends? Are they all doing just what they need to do to get ahead?
As Christos Tsiolkas says in the Monthly Book interview:
“I think that ethos of ‘the winner takes it all’ – of the individual who, by their own talent or genius, is successful as if they are disconnected from the social, from family, from everything – I think that’s one of the plagues (laughs) in our society at the moment. So I was very aware of that as a writer. And I could see it in someone like Danny that that too was, I think, a destructive thing … I think the thing about the hero in something like sports, say, with swimming or football, with young men like Danny, is the aspiration is to be Superman. And when they’re being Supermen, we are cheering them, and we are making them gods, and we are giving them licence to believe that they stand alone, that they can be anything they want to be. But they make one mistake, and we tear into them.”
It’s a coming-of-age novel that isn’t afraid to look into the darkness of the human heart and the murky world of developing sexuality.
And it takes on a technically difficult task: how do you keep a reader engaged in the repetitions of effort required in training and the winning of race after race in the waters of a variety of swimming pools?
Here’s Christos again:
“There are a series of words and expressions, and a couple of phrases, that form a chorus in the book. That’s one thing I wanted to do, but part of the work on the book was actually making sure that I didn’t overuse them, that they didn’t become banal by then. So that was one of the tasks.
… the breathing part, you know, the breathing in and the breathing out … and the other thing I wanted to do, and this was a real challenge, was how do you convey to a reader the discipline and actually the monotony that is part of that swimming process?”
Christos Tsiolkas succeeds mightily in this task of keeping the reader engaged, and Danny’s life and his intensities will stay with you long after you’ve finished the book. You might even detect a longing to dive into the water and test yourself against its force.