What We Thought: Tempting though it is to begin with a pun about how Barracuda dives under the surface of Australian identity, it doesn’t quite work. This is a book about a swimming champion, a cultural and class misfit, about social and personal limitations. It’s also about carving out an identity, whether in water or stone. Tsiolkas writes with both the savagery of a machete and the precision of a scalpel.
Danny/Daniel/Barracuda has a talent, which earns him a scholarship at a private school in Melbourne, an exceptional coach, the apparent respect of his peers and a determination for the future. He has a clear ambition and his future is all mapped out.
The narrative takes an unexpected turn, leaping to the future, when adult Dan and his partner Clyde, are living in Glasgow. Dan’s a carer for people with brain injuries – and he’s good at it – but he won’t swim.
The narrative switches between the build-up to the Sydney Olympics and the much-later aftermath, hinting at a pivotal event which changes the Barracuda’s course. It’s intense, in feeling, colour, place, strata and time. Danny is one of those rare characters you want to fight and fight for at the same time.
One of the most endearing set pieces comes when Dan accompanies his mother to Adelaide, to say farewell to his maternal grandmother. He meets his cousin Dennis, learns more about family dynamics and understands a bit more about what happens when he doesn’t come first.
Brilliantly structured and viciously observant, this book delivers a youthful searing rage and a mature sense of relative awareness in extraordinarily cool prose.
You’ll like this if you enjoyed: Tim Winton’s Breath, Thomas Strittmatter’s Raven
Avoid if you dislike: Sex, violence, swearing or middle-class Melbourne under the microscope
Ideal accompaniments: LLB (Lemon, Lime and Bitters), Bombay Duck and Nirvana’s Come As You Are
Genre: Literary Fiction