So reads the first line of David Copperfield which resonates with Danny Kelly when he reads it ,as it is also the question he is grappling with in Chris Tsiolkas’ latest novel, Barracuda.
Tsiolkas is the Australian author of worldwide best-seller The Slap, subsequently made into a TV series. A book that controversially de-constructed Australian middle class life and, be warned, Barracuda is no less confrontational.
Danny Kelly’s dream is to be a swimming star, specifically to compete in the Sydney Olympics and win gold for Australia. Swimming and success obsess him.
The novel is split into two parts : Breathing In as Danny goes into his stroke; and Breathing Out as he is propelled by it’s consequences – but swimming is just a metaphor for what Danny must deal with to reach the finishing line.
On his journey Danny must confront the complexities and contradictions of Australian life. As Clyde, Danny’s Scottish boyfriend, puts it :
‘You all think you’re so egalitarian, but you’re the most status-seeking people I’ve met.You call yourselves laid back but you’re angry and resentful all the time.You say there is no class system here, but you’re terrified of the poor, and you say you are anti-authoritarian but all there is here are rules, from the moment I fucken landed here, rules about doing this and not doing that, don’t climb there , don’t go here, don’t smoke and don’t drink here and don’t play there and don’t drink and drive and don’t go over the speed limit and don’t do anything fucken human.’
Tsiolkas also deals with an institution I have long found bewildering. Danny wins a scholarship to the so called ‘ Cunts College’ a private school which in every way imitates all that is divisive and negative about the British public school system. Such schools exist all over the ‘ ex-colonies’ and are, I think, increasingly hard to explain or understand. There Danny meets his Steerforth….but, be careful, Danny is not always a reliable narrator.
Tsiolkas writes with a blistering honesty that some may, perhaps, find offensive. I never felt anything was gratuitous or unnecessary. He describes love, loss, longing and the depths to which we can all sink given extenuating circumstances with a simplicity and humanity that will bring a lump to your throat.
Make no mistake, this is an author at the height of his powers. Dickens, Tolstoy and Graham Greene, amongst others, are frequently referenced in the book. Like Dickens and Tolstoy, Tsiolkas examines hypocrisy in society, and Danny searches to explain the reason for his existence just as Greene’s heroes do. Like Dickens and Tolstoy, Tsiolkas is also a master storyteller. I was gripped from the start of this 500pp plus book and read it inside of two days, despite the demands of ‘real’ life.
And, is Danny the hero of his own life? Well, you will just have to read Barracuda to find out.