Australia, Author, Book review, Christos Tsiolkas, Fiction, literary fiction, Setting, Tuskar Rock Press

‘Barracuda’ by Christos Tsiolkas

Barracuda-UKcover

Fiction – paperback; Tuskar Rock Press; 513 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas hit the big time with his best-selling novel The Slap in 2008. It won the ALS Gold Medal (2008), the Commonwealth Writers Prize Best Book (2009) and the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction (2009). It was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award (2009) and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize (2010). It was also adapted for television as an eight-part series (which, by the way, I highly recommend — by far the best thing on TV in 2011).

But while it won plenty of praise and sold by the truckload, it also attracted much controversy — critics complained about the language (too raw), the sex (too filthy) and the characters (unlikeable). Some — mainly British reviewers — claimed it was misogynistic. Me? I loved it. Which is why I was so looking forward to his new novel, Barracuda, which has just been published in the UK.

I’m pleased to say I wasn’t disappointed. This is another highly readable, totally addictive, octane-fuelled story that addresses big themes — what it is to be good, what it is to be successful, love, redemption and social mobility  — and isn’t afraid to be in your face about it.

Swimming talent

The story follows Danny Kelly, who acquires the nickname “Barracuda” because of his extraordinary talent in the swimming pool. This talent offers Danny the chance to escape his working class roots. Not only does it earn him a scholarship to a prestigious private school in Melbourne, if he works hard and dedicates himself to the sport, he could end up on the Australian swimming team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

But at his first big championship swim meet he blows it — and comes fifth. Where others might have learnt a valuable lesson and become even more determined to achieve their Olympic dream, Danny never quite recovers from the shock of losing. Even though he has the physical ability to be an elite swimmer, he lacks the emotional and psychological maturity to deal with this setback. And sadly, this sets in motion a whole chain of events which will haunt Danny for the rest of his life.

And I understand, I know, it is failure that is evil.
So I run, my strides enormous, not caring who I crash into, who I hurt. I run so fast that I am hurting the ground as I pound it. I run so fast that I am fire. But no matter how fast I run, the Devil is there beside me. The Devil is in me. I am a larva and that which is emerging is something vile, something uglier that what existed before.

Two narrative threads

When the story opens we meet Danny long after that swimming “failure”. In fact, he’s so loathe to remember his swimming past that he refuses to go near water. He’s reinvented himself as a carer helping injured people during their rehabilitiation, and he’s living on the other side of the world, in Glasgow, Scotland, with his male lover, Clyde. But Danny has a secret — and he knows that at some point he’s going to have to come clean and tell his boyfriend because it could scupper his plan to stay in the UK permanently.

From there the book splits into two distinct narratives: one that moves backwards in time, tracing Danny’s new life in Scotland to his time as a teenage swim sensation; and the other that moves forwards in time, following his story from teenage swim sensation to potential Scottish immigrant. It’s a device that works well, because it provides light and shade to Danny’s story — his successes and failures, his struggle to be good against his “natural” inclination to be bad — and lets you see what impact certain events have on his later life. And it also provides just the right amount of narrative tension to keep you moving the pages — what, for instance, is that secret he’s so carefully guarding in Scotland? The shock of it, I must say, left me slightly stunned.

Indeed, there’s many revelations in this book that left me stunned. It’s a thought-provoking read — as ever, the language is raw and often crude (the nickname that Danny gives his college is but one example) and the sex is filthy (you have been warned) — but it explores so many interesting themes and issues that it’s impossible not to like. It feels utterly contemporary, but by the same token, the story, of a boy from the wrong side of the tracks trying to cross over into a more affluent social class, could have been lifted from a 19th century novel.

Life in Australia

As an expat-Australian reading this book, I identified with so much of the social commentary, especially the no-holds barred criticisms of Australia, that I had to stop myself from underlining whole pages for fear I’d end up scribbling over the entire book. I particularly loved this passage, which comes out of the mouth of Clyde, a Scotsman who sums up life in Australia perfectly (forgive the cursive language, which is Tsiolkas’ not mine):

“You all think you are 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’re anti-authoritarian but all there is here is 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. You’re all so scared of dying you can’t let yourselves live — fuck that: we’re human, we die, that’s part of life. That’s just life.”

I could go on, but I won’t, because I’m not sure everyone would agree with me, but sometimes you have to leave your country to understand it, and reading Barracuda made me feel so much better about many of the things that have bugged me for a decade or more.

All in all, this is a hugely powerful read, not just about sporting achievement and striving to be the best at what you choose to do, but of coming to terms with your own frailties and flaws, of learning to appreciate your family, friends and loved ones, and being prepared to let go of the past in order to move into the future. There’s a lot of love, forgiveness, redemption and atonement in this novel. It’s ambitious — in structure and in subject — but it succeeds, because Tsiolkas forgoes the literary flourishes and makes it a truly entertaining and accessible read — and that, to me, is what the very best fiction should be all about.

And finally…

As an aside, I do recommend that you listen to this You Wrote the Book podcast — a 31-minute interview with Christos Tsiolkas — by my mate, Simon Savidge, which covers Barracuda indepth.

And in the interests of transparency, I should point out I met the author on Monday night at his UK book launch — a kinder, more lovelier person you could not meet. I had a wonderful chat to him (about Australian society — what else?) on the walk to a Bloomsbury restaurant, where a celebratory dinner was held with his publishing posse and a whole bunch of people from the upcoming Australian and New Zealand Festival of the Arts to which I’d kindly been invited. That meeting and meal has not influenced this review; I loved the book even before I had the good fortune to meet the man who penned it.

& Other Stories, Author, Book review, Deborah Levy, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Swimming Home’ by Deborah Levy

Swimming_Home

Fiction – Kindle edition; And Other Stories; 127 pages; 2012.

Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, is the kind of short, sharp novel that may make you think twice about going on holiday with family friends.

A holiday in France

The story takes place across eight days in July 1994. The setting is the Alpes-Maritimes, France, where two English families share a holiday villa.  War correspondent Isabel Jacobs, her husband Joe — a celebrated poet — and their 14-year-old daughter, Nina, are joined by long-time friends, Mitchell and Laura, who run a shop in Euston, London.

When the five arrive at the villa they discover a body floating in the deep end of the swimming pool. They initially mistake it for a bear, but it turns out to be a young woman called Kitty French, who has exceedingly long hair.

Kitty seems to think she has a booking at the villa, too, but there’s been a mix-up with the rental dates. All the local hotels are booked up, so Isabel offers her the spare room. This vague but kind invitation will end up having far-reaching repercussions for everyone.

Deceptive appearances

There are two other characters — Jurgen, the German caretaker, and Madeleine Sheridan, the next-door neighbour — who are both crucial to the plot, because they have had past experiences with Kitty.

Of course Kitty is not all that she seems (indeed, no-one in this novella is what they seem to be when you first meet them). She tells everyone she is a botanist, but she also writes poetry and her arrival at the villa is part of a charade to meet Joe, whom she has long admired.

It is no plot spoiler to reveal that she ends up having sex with him — we find this out on page one as the pair drive through the night, two hours after their consummation in the Hotel Negresco.

A stranger’s arrival

Levy has taken an old formulaic plot — that of the stranger who arrives unannounced to disrupt a group dynamic — but given it an original twist. (On more than one occasion I was reminded of Ali Smith’s The Accidental, which does something similar and which was also shortlisted for the Booker — in 2005.)

It’s not an emotional book — although it does have a shock ending — but more an intellectual one, because there’s quite a lot to mull over and think about. (For instance, is Kitty’s poem that she wants Joe to read, really a poem — or a suicide note?)

And while the characters are not particularly fleshed out — indeed Laura seems to disappear not long after she’s been introduced and Mitchell doesn’t fare much better — they are deeply intriguing. All have closely guarded secrets, and part of the joy of reading Swimming Home is discovering these as Levy shifts her perceptive eye from character to character.

A book to read twice?

I rather suspect that this is a book that demands a second reading. Levy’s prose and the book’s structure is so deft and tight, that the narrative zips along at a furious pace. Occasionally, I wondered if I might have missed something and went back and reread pages — just to make sure.

In a way, this is a novel of contradictions: it’s dry and dispassionate throughout, but the ending is very moving and leaves one feeling particularly unnerved; the writing is taut and sparse, but it feels lyrical and Levy can capture a mood or scene in just a few words (“it was snowing seagulls on every rooftop in Nice”); the barely-there plot is rather dull but the story is intriguing and compelling.

While I feel kind of ambivalent about the book — I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either — I rather suspect the Man Booker judges may think differently. The winning novel — and it will probably be this one — is named on October 16.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, Tim Winton

‘Breath’ by Tim Winton

Breath

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 247 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

You’ve got to hand it to Tim Winton for being able to pick a theme and really work it. In Breath, his eighth novel, he focuses on the concept of breath — and breathing — so that it infuses almost every page. But he does it so delicately you’re not even aware that it’s happening — a bit like breathing itself — until you put the book down and mull things over.

A gentle story

I read Breath over the course of a few cold winter days and found myself mesmirised by the gentle, occasionally heart-breaking, story that unfolds, of a boy growing up on the Western Australian coast in the 1970s. Bruce Pike, or “pikelet”, is an outsider — his parents are English immigrants — who has no friends and lacks confidence. The only time he is ever sure of himself is when he is swimming in the local river or surfing in the ocean.

But when he meets “Loonie”, the town’s wild child, everything changes. The pair aren’t exactly kindred spirits, but there’s a bond between them — mainly in the form of “deep diving and breath-holding against the clock”.

Looking for added excitement, they save their pennies and invest in “real surfboards” made out of “proper foam and fibreglass” which “were tokens of our arrival”.

I will always remember my first wave that morning. The smells of paraffin wax and brine and peppy scrub. The way the swell rose beneath me like a body drawing in air. How the wave drew me forward and I sprang to my feet, skating with the wind of momentum in my ears. I leant across the wall of upstanding water and the board came with me as though it was part of my body and mind. The blur of spray. The billion shards of light. I remember the solitary watching figure on the beach and the flash of Loonie’s smile as I flew by; I was intoxicated.

The solitary figure on the beach (as per the quote above) turns out to be the linchpin of this story. His name is Sando, he has a Kombi van, a red dog, a lovely house by the ocean and an American wife with a chip on her shoulder and a stroppy attitude to match. He is in his 30s (“that made him a genuinely old guy”) and, although the boys don’t immediately know it, he was once an international champion surfer.

Tests their courage

Over the course of a summer he hangs out with Pikelet and Loonie and tests their courage by taking them surfing in often dangerous and remote locations.

For the first time in his life Pikelet experiences exhilaration and finds something that he is exceptionally good at. But there are limits to his bravery — and it is finding that line between fear and stupidity that shapes his character.

It also makes him realise that perhaps the friendship he shares with Loonie is not really friendship at all.

He hurled himself at the world. You could never second-guess him and once he embarked on something there was no holding him back. Yet the same stuff you marvelled at could really wear you down. Some Mondays I was relieved to be back on the school bus.

An unexpected twist

I won’t spoil the plot, but about two-thirds of the way through Pikelet’s story takes an unexpected — and erotic — twist that I never saw coming. That’s despite the fact that the opening chapter, written from the perspective of a middle-aged Pikelet looking back on his formative years, lays the ground for what it is to come.

What appears to be a rather gentle coming-of-age story turns into quite a heart-hammering and confronting read, one that shocks and frightens in equal measure. Yet Winton never resorts to sensationalism or author trickery; he simply tells the tale of a teenage boy’s secret past in simple, straightforward prose — and it feels all the more compelling for it.

And I love how the narrative is so strongly tied to the ocean and all things aquatic; it almost reads like a loveletter to the sea.

Breath won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2009 and the Age Book of the Year Fiction Prize in 2008. It was shortlisted for Commonwealth Writers Prize (south-east Asia and south Pacific region) and Queensland Premiers Literary Awards 2008.