“He would be first, everything would be alright when he came first, all would be put back in place. When he thought of being the best, only then did he feel calm.”
Barracuda is a story about winning, shame, society, identity, family and friendships. It picks at the Australian obsession with sporting heroes – how quick we are to hold them up and equally, cut them down.
Author Christos Tsiolkas tackles these issues through a conceptually simple story – school boy Danny Kelly only wants one thing – to win Olympic gold. His immigrant parents struggle to send him to a prestigious private school* with the best swimming program. There, Danny feels like an outcast but also develops a win-at-all-cost ferocity.
The structure of this book is remarkable – compelling and clever. Throwing aside chronological order, Tsiolkas moves from the past and present tense, and from third and first person narrative. At first, Danny is a self-absobred teenager – just when you’re not liking him much at all, Tsiolkas switches gears, and you see Danny’s vulnerabilities. And then the narrative switches again, and Danny is revealed as an adult, struggling to atone for an unnamed mistake that Tsiolkas toys enticingly with from the very beginning.
“There’s not a lot I know, but I know this, that the body can be trained, that the body can be changed, that the body is in motion, is never static. And I know that sometimes the body will roar out its limits, will tell you there is no further to go, that some possibilities will never be realised, despite desire and hope and will. I know this better than I know anything else. The body also fails.”
There’s a familiarity in Tsiolkas’s writing style – it’s gritty and unpretentious, the language often (fittingly) crude but there’s also tenderness to be found in his words –
“…I am thinking of how loyalty is more often compromised by carelessness than spite…”
“In reading he found solitude. In reading he could dispel the blare of the world.”
When I recommend Tsiolkas’s The Slap, my recommendation comes with nothing more than “Just read it, we’ll talk later.” Because it’s a book that divides opinion. On so many levels. Barracuda will be the same. It’s a big book, tackling big issues. I’m not sure that any one review can unpack all the layers that Tsiolkas has so carefully built into this story – it certainly won’t be mine. However, there is one aspect of the story that I can’t leave alone. Public versus private education.
I live in the epicentre of Melbourne’s elite private schools. Soon, my eldest son will be going to a public high school. I know, the horror. Defense of our choice has begun (note that in return I don’t ask people to justify their decision to spend $17,000 per year on school fees). I say ‘defense’ fairly loosely because actually I couldn’t give a shit what other people think about our choice. When it gets down to tin-tacks, I want my kids to experience diversity, I want co-education and I certainly don’t want them to ever behave with a sense of entitlement that supposes things like French trips (to Paris) are the norm.
There’s a scene in Barracuda where Danny visits a schoolmate’s holiday house in Sorrento. The scene, which includes Taylor speaking to his mother like an arrogant little prick and an uncomfortable family lunch that gets to the nitty-gritty of the Australian class division, is appallingly real and uncomfortably familiar. And a reminder of what I don’t want my kids to grow up to be.
“…for all Dan and Demet had gained, they both shared the same fear: that middle class wasn’t worth it.”
An early scene at Danny’s school is equally as telling –
“Taylor came up to him at the lockers, just as the bell sounded for first period. ‘Is your mum on TV?’
Danny slammed the locker door. ‘She’s a hairdresser.’
Taylor held up his hands in feigned apology. ‘That’s cool, Dino. She’s amazing-looking, we thought maybe she was an actress or something.’ He winked at Danny.’Someone’s got to cut hair.’ Taylor had his hands in his pockets and he was whistling as he walked away.
4/5 This book is as significant a commentary on Australian society as The Slap. There’s good reason why it has taken me weeks to write this review – this is a book I’ll be thinking about for a long time.
There’s lots of references to food in Barracuda but I did love the way Tsiolkas describes Danny’s first taste of beer –
“His first beer, that tasted of earth and light, the touch of the first summer sun on wet ground.”
* referred to in the book as Cunts College. Melburnians are placing bets on what school it’s based on. I have my theories. Coincidentially, when I was a teen, we referred to this particular school as the Prick Factory.