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Bold Observations: Barracuda

imageBarracuda by Chris Tsiolkas

This is a long overdue review. Every reviewer who writes about Barracuda laments that there is no way they can do justice to the novel. This is so true and exactly why an almost blank draft has been sitting on my computer for quite some time.

Danny Kelly has one wish: the escape his working class background. Talented at swimming, he wins a scholarship to an elite private boys’ school. Everything Danny does is concentrated on being the fastest and the best, sticking it to the rich privileged boys at his school. When Danny comes fifth at an international meet he he can’t cope with not being the best and begins to destroy everything around him.

First Impressions: As expected, I liked Tsioklas’ writing style. I enjoyed Danny’s introduction to his scholarship school and could tell very early on that there would be so much more in this novel than there was in The Slap, and that was hardly light reading!

Highlights: Class is the main issue in this novel with everyone’s hang ups hinging on their social standing. I heard Tsiolkas in Conversation with Richard Fidler and he makes the strong point that for a country that prides itself on being a classless society, the reality is that everyone is obsessed with class. I found this element of the novel interesting as it is almost a taboo to write so openly about it. Tsioklas writes a lot about the pretentiousness of the upper class and their need to keep their distance from the lower classes. There are so many vignettes about the wealthy that sound both ridiculous but completely believable at the same time – surely the author has heard these stories first or second hand? The remodelled house so that the family can change the street address? The father who personally upgrades his son to first class on a domestic flight to a swim meet? I also enjoyed the now famous rant in the book about how Australians claim to be anti-authority and hate following rules but in reality they are all incredibly law abiding- I can relate as I remember arriving in London and being amazed that people could take their dog on public transport and then sit down and eat a burger and chips! As someone who spends half his year in Australia and the other half in Greece, Tsiolkas has a keen eye for these ironies. Finally, I can feel Danny’s awkwardness when he constantly explains how the rich kids at his school are always at ease as they feel they have the right to belong whereas he always needs to justify his presence. So touching.

If I was an editor: This novel isn’t shy at commenting on contemporary Australia. It’s boldness is admirable. I preferred the flashbacks to Danny’s earlier life and wasn’t as interested in exploring his current situation. Although wonderfully written, I found all of the sections of Danny’s feelings almost too much to keep reading through. I had to stop and start a lot when reading this novel as it is just so dense. I don’t know if the final revelation about what happened to Danny justifies wading through everything before.

Overall: Worth reading but overwhelming at times. I changed the star rating many times throughout.

Barracuda: 3 stars

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Something Different: This is the Water

This is the WaterThis is the Water by Yannick Murphy

In the New England world of junior competitive swimming, parents spend hours driving their children to training and meets. Annie has two girls on the team, a dead brother and a fading marriage. She does not know a killer is lurking at the facility.

First Impressions: I liked the way the first few chapters are like a game of spin the bottle: you heard a little bit about a few of the swim mums and you had to wait to see whose story you would be following for the rest of the novel. The writing style has divided opinion but I really liked it as it is original.

Highlights: I loved the ending. Not just the final actions in the last few chapters, but the last few paragraphs. I closed the book and thought that it was all just a storm in a teacup (no spoiler here, don’t worry). This calm is a really nice comparison to the first few chapters that I mentioned above. I liked the setting – rural, small town New England, very claustrophobic, everything revolving around the swim team. Do junior swimming worlds like this really exist? Gosh, I don’t know!

If I was an editor: I know this novel would divide people like marmite. Even as an individual reader my feelings kept changing: I went from loving it, to being bored with it, to staying up late trying to finish it, all the time not knowing what to make of it. Is all the detail necessary? Yes, of course. No, not really. I can’t decide! Anyway, the important thing for an editor is that this book will get people talking and wanting to share their opinion.

Overall: Unique. I still don’t know if I liked it or not. I think I did!

This is the Water: 4 stars

 Thank you to Bookbridgr for a copy of the ARC to review.

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