A few years ago, I found myself in the office of the CEO of Bloomsbury Publishing. It was enormous; a re-purposed ballroom of sorts. The distant ceiling, chandeliers tinkling, soared above. The rank of windows, running the width of the building, looked serenely down on to Bloomsbury Square; the light glinted softly off an enormous polished antique table flanked by twenty or so scrolled dining chairs: where, I can only assume, the board met. In the corner, a deep antique desk, piled with books, its computer incongruous with the surrounds. I sat there, with the CEO. Alone.
How had it come to this? How on earth was I meeting with one of the most respected, senior men in publishing? I had been having a Job Crisis; one of those periodic moments that afflicts us all when we suddenly get itching throats and sweating palms at the thought that our employment doesn’t thrill every fibre of our being, fulfil our every creative whim, pay us handsomely, and save the earth to boot. Culture seems guilty of telling us that if it doesn’t do these things, we just aren’t being brave enough, putting ourselves out there enough. So out I put myself, in the vague pursuit of publishing. And (thanks to good, kind family friends) so I found myself in the office of the man himself.
He was a hilarious, charming, interesting man. Quite frankly reason enough to go into the publishing industry. We had a delightful chat about life, and then at the end, remembering why I was there, he kindly offered me some work experience. He swooped, aquiline, to the phone to call a lowly editorial assistant to come and take me around; the poor chap arrived sweating and goggle-eyed at this totally unforeseen summons to the office of the CEO. At the end of his tour, he gave me two books he was working on – including an early copy of Tsiolkas’s Barracuda (you see, I got there eventually.) I didn’t read it for nearly 3 years.
Why? Because I despised the other one so much that I was put off the industry entirely. I’m not kidding. It was horrendous. I realised a fundamental truth: loving reading alone does not mean you should work in publishing. No. In fact it will make having to slave to promote a book you dislike all the worse (and even more horrific if you have pretensions to write a novel yourself). You don’t get to choose which books you work on for YEARS. (You also don’t get paid for more than slave labour for years, but that’s another issue.) There’s a very real risk that it could kill your love off like a ten ton rock. I was paralysed: how did I possibly give a scalding review to a book given to me in this circumstance? How could I possibly give this book a GOOD review? I dithered, paralysed. But life intervened, in the form of a new job in my normal industry and pregnancy. I called Bloomsbury to say I’d be unable to carry out my work experience. I forgot about Barracuda. But last week I came across it again, and with the whole stress-inducing episode melting into anecdote, felt I could tackle it.
The wonder of having a book chosen for you is that you’re forced into a different world that you wouldn’t have chosen from the blurb. In this case it was an intense, sport-centric, body-conscious, aggressive, teenage male world which is a million miles from my day to day life. And it can be magnificent escapism and horizon-stretching to become immersed in a world so different from your own. Tsiolkas does a brilliant job of bringing working class Melbourne to life through the eyes of Dan, a schoolboy with dreams of becoming a swimming champion. Given a sports scholarship to a private boy’s school, he finds himself in a different world, struggling to find his place and investing his entire identity and meaning in his need to be the very best. We are accustomed to thinking of that will to win as a tool of the great – the sort of thing Usain Bolt has – but this book is a very interesting exploration of the damage that mindset can do, particularly when you aren’t one of the infinitesimally small number who are, in fact, The Best.
Barracuda does the intelligent job of changing with its protagonist – of seeming to champion one thing then coming round to another. And it’s intelligent in other ways too: both the past and future narratives are non-chronological, causing a fair bit of misdirection, suspense and dramatic comparison. What did happen, we wonder. How? When? The writing is forceful and confident, packed with strong metaphors that in no way dilute the masculine content. Tsiolkas really gets inside the head of a character who changes profoundly over the course of the novel.
Just when I thought I’d recommend this more widely, there were some sudden and extremely graphic, not entirely pleasant, sex passages which quite frankly put me off. Call me a prude, fine, but the detail was unnecessary. I can see the argument for its inclusion: the book is intensely physical, bringing alive every sensation of Dan pushing himself to his limits in the pool and intensely aware of his body as his tool even when out of it, so it’s just an extension of that. But. Well. You’ve been warned.
This book doesn’t make me pine for the publishing industry – I doubt any could – but it does shake my objection to being provided with books I have not chosen. It can be a disaster – but it can be a refreshing eye-opener, and a welcome reminder of quite why reading fiction is one of life’s greatest joys.