He was stronger, faster, better

Barricuda by Christos TsliokasIn this new novel by best-selling Australian author Christos Tsiolkas (The Slap), an uplifting, redemptive scene provides the book’s title. It takes place in the great assembly hall of a posh Melbourne prep school when protagonist Danny Kelly is called to the podium by the principal. The room erupts into foot-stomping cheers, lauding Danny’s first place win in an Australian swimming championship. Students chant, Barracuda, Barracuda! It’s a spine-tingling moment that raises this working-class boy to a level of acceptance among his wealthy, contemptuous peers. Australia’s class issues, as well as its multi-ethnic demographic, are hallmark themes for Tsiolkas — Danny is the son of a Scottish truck driver and a Greek hairdresser.

Swimming is everything to this teenager on scholarship at this expensive school where he trains with Frank Torma, a no-nonsense coach who recognizes the makings of a champion. Danny proves him right, excelling above all others on the school swim team. His goal is to win gold at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, and his mantra that he is stronger, faster, better than anyone else keeps him steady among all that goes on in his life — the taunts and exclusions at school, his father’s disparaging remarks and the confusion he feels between the two class worlds.

Tsiolkas’s narrative method employs the teen-aged and young adult Danny Kelly to tell the story in alternating chapters taking place between 1994 and 2012. These chapters are so seamlessly knitted together you barely feel the change in time, rather move fluidly with the rhythmic flow, similar to how Danny describes moving through and becoming one with the water. Back and forth the narrative pulls us. We engage with Danny in his school days of becoming an A-class swimmer, winning Torma’s praise and favoritism and becoming chummy with the team’s golden boy Martin Taylor (who started the barracuda chant in the assembly hall). And we engage with Dan (what Danny prefers to be called later) reading classic literature in a one-room apartment, living in Glasgow with his lover Clyde, stocking shelves in a supermarket and working with disabled adults.

The scenes are colorful, dramatic, moving; and as we read them we’re gripped with the simmering tension of knowing something bad happens to Danny who failed to achieve his dream. Early on in the story, well before the great assembly hall scene, the adult Dan confesses to Clyde he’s been to prison for almost killing a man. Tsiolkas masterfully uses this early knowledge to hook us emotionally into Danny and Dan’s situations and the mystery of what went wrong. We are so deeply involved with this character that when we finally read the answer, it hits hard. I wanted to reach into the pages of the book and talk to Danny as his downfall unfolds, convince him to have greater courage and integrity: You don’t have to go that route. You can recover. You can live your dream and be the champion. And then it gets worse, an act of violence that’s painful to read, bringing the two class worlds together in a crash.

Barracuda, in its deep dive into Danny’s soul, is superbly crafted. It’s not just a gripping story, but also an important one, providing a heart-wrenching viewpoint into what it’s like for a talented young athlete to dream of being a champion — to dream and then to fail. Dan strives to outlive Danny’s shame by seeking truth and forgiveness, something his friends, family and enemies don’t readily embrace. They still can only see Danny Kelly, the swimming phenomenon who let them down. They don’t understand, after all he’s been through, Dan simply wants to be a good person. It’s a goal that’s harder to attain, under his circumstances, than the gold of an Olympic medal, and he knows it’s more valuable.

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