Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

“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.

29 responses

  1. I found your blog through searching for “The Other Typist” and I just want to tell you how much I love your sense of humour and honesty in the way you write- you make me want to read everything you review! Thanks xx

  2. This actually sounds fascinating, even though I suspect quite a bit of the commentary would be lost on me. Private schools outside of major metropolitan cities (NY, LA, Chicago, Boston) are not the norm here. The exception is religious private schools, which are popping up more and more (I find this deeply disturbing).

    Are class divisions really prevalent in Australia?

    • Australians like to think there are no class divisions but it’s simply not true. It may not be as ingrained as British society (largely because we’ve only had 200-odd years of white settlement) but there is a division, much of which happens in communities with large immigrant populations. Immigration and asylum seekers are very, very big political issues in Australia (dare I open this can of worms?!) and our new Prime Minister is not keen on letting anyone in (much to my disgust). But that’s not say the previous government performed much better. Actually the author of the Barracuda wrote a very good piece on the issue – – it’s a long article but the second half gets to the guts of the day-to-day issues.

      Private schools are very common in Australia, particularly in Melbourne and Sydney – all of them have a religious alignment although the extent to which religion is taught varies considerably between the schools. I feel very strongly about public education and it makes me FURIOUS that private schools get government funding. Regardless of how much money I had, I would not choose to send my children to a private school – it’s a philosophical decision. That said, I’m well aware that the public schools we have access to are good schools and we’re lucky.

      • Immigrants (from Mexico, in our case) are a huge political issue here as well. I don’t know how much of our news filters down there, but don’t get me started on the fence issue. You recent government change made the news here, Abbott generally does not receive positive news coverage.

        If private schools receive government funding, does the government have a say in what’s taught? Private schools receive no government funding here. If the do, they are aided private schools (and thus not truly private). If the school does not receive government funding, they are free to teach what they like. The religious ones often have their own history books and their own science books.

        That article’s depressing.

      • Most of the US political news that reaches Australia is about gun control. I can’t recall hearing anything about immigrants to the US in our news (although we (I) are aware of the issue, particularly from Mexico).

        And no, private schools get Gov funding but the school sets the agenda and operates employment of teachers (and therefore salary) independently. Obviously that impacts on the public system. And hence why the whole situation makes me mad.

  3. Enjoyed your review but I just wanted to say that my daughter goes to a private school in Melbourne and at her school there *is* diversity and coeducation, and the kids that *are* growing up with that incredible sense of entitlement and warped values about money etc seem to be in the minority. There are private schools and there are private schools, and there are ranges of parents and family types, just as there are variances within the government secondary system. I’m also a teacher who visits a range of primary and secondary schools in and around Melbs, and works with the students (teaching sex ed) so I get to see a fair few schools of all types in different locations. I can honestly say that kids are pretty much kids wherever you go. You have a few shits everywhere (definite minority), and wonderful respectful smart kids everywhere, which is logical, it is the world. To over-generalise leads to stereotypes, exactly the type of thing that the migrant communities, people with sexual identities outside the heteronormative group etc etc loathe and fight against.

    This was one of my biggest problems with Tsiolkas’s book I think: he has drawn a very one-dimensional and narrow picture of private schools and private school students. He’s made it controversial and that’s his prerogative, he’s the author, and that’s what will get readers talking, but has it been for the sake of sincere discussions and greater understanding amongst people or just for highlighting the divides and provoking arguments?

    Also for what it’s worth, I reckon Cunts’ College is Scotch, but skewed a little for anonymity? Is that the one you were thinking of?

    Sorry for the long comment!

    • I totally agree with you that are ‘private schools and private schools’. Lots of my friends went to private schools and lots of their kids go/ are going to private schools as well. Around where I live (Kew) all bar one are single-sex, which is not something I would personally choose for my kids, simply because I think the real world is mixed so get used to it.

      Sex ed? You would have some interesting sessions!

      Agree that Tsiolkas has deliberately gone about the story to create dialogue – he did the same, (obviously incredibly successfully) with The Slap – a book that I could still talk about with people after all these years. I went to hear him speak a few weeks ago and he made no bones about playing up the class/ school/ sexuality/ immigrant angles. He was also very clear about the fact that he did not go to a private school but had feelings of being a ‘working class outsider’ when he started at Melbourne Uni and that the character of Demet is based a lot on his own experience. For what it’s worth, I wasn’t entirely convinced about the homosexuality angle in Barracuda – it was the weakest part of the story for me.

      You pose a valid question regarding sincere discussions – I’ll report back after my book group tackles the book! Are we all ultimately bias because of our own education experience? There’s no perfect experiment to compare, is there?

      And re: the identity of CC – I agree with you. The reference to the purple and yellow uniform was an obvious red herring. I had thought possibly Xavier but not enough good Catholic guilt amongst the boys 😉

      • I will write a follow-up when my book group gets to it although they are a bit of a slack book (wine and whine) group 😉

        Barracuda comes at a time when everyone is also getting their knickers in a knot over Ja’ime Private School Girl (for the record I think this show is a bit much and find myself cringing more than laughing). But I did find this article interesting – if only for the final line – “Ultimately we all have to live with the results of our families choosing our aspirations from a tender age.” I keep looking at my own kids and wondering, is this true? One of my kids is not strong academically. I mentioned this to another parent along with the fact that it was guiding our high school decision and appalled they said “Don’t write him off yet!” I thought this was an interesting response because I feel I’m doing the opposite – I don’t want to send him to a high school (private or public) focused on maintaining their great VCE scores. I want him to go to a school that can play to his creative strengths and give him an opportunity to do VCAL if that’s more his thing. I do get concerned about the emphasis on VCE results and university – fact is it’s not for everyone. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the area we live in.

      • Oh my god yes that parenting angst. I found myself feeling the same thing when my daughter was in primary school, having trouble with reading/writing. There was such a gap between her spoken and comprehensive precociousness and her reading/writing. I started thinking things like ‘well, not everyone’s academic’ wanting to NOT be that parent with high expectations that I thought would damage her, put pressure on her. Then I realised I was possibly going to, as your friend said, ‘write her off’ (not as in giving up on her, but giving up on her being academic too easily). After an assessment etc she was found to have problems with her visual memory. We did exercises which were torturous and constant and a pain in the arse for her and me BUT now, she is in Year 11, and doing IB and I would say is an academic girl. She always was an intellectual in the making but now she can match her skills to her disposition. In about Grade 5 her love of reading kicked in (thank you Harry Potter!) and that saw her on her way. She is the MOST voracious reader I know, and at the age of 17 has consumed classic texts well before I had at that age, and including some I haven’t even read yet.

        You sending your boy to a school that offers more to him as an individual is the best thing to do, it always should be about that than anything else. Where are they going to get what they need, to help them be a happy productive student. I agree with you, Year 12 is not the be all, neither is university. Those years are such a small part of our total lives and there is so much pressure these days. But for me, I’m glad that my daughter is a Reader first, more than any academic achievements she might attain. I will check that link now re Ja’ime. We are watching it and I’m amused at the shrill responses of people. It was the same with Angry Boys. People didn’t like it, I just think people don’t get it. I don’t think it’s about laughing at something comical; it darker than that, and very uncomfortable, because we see ourselves in it, people we know, people that this society is creating. I think people also need to see the whole of his programs, not just an episode or two. He has a story arc going on, and it often isn’t clear what he’s doing until the whole thing has been watched. So I know it seems a little one-dimensional and repetitive, but I think he’s too clever to be indulgent in that way. I think there’s more too it, but we shall see I suppose.

        Sorry again for the long comment. Argh.

      • You are so, so right about kids and reading. Thankfully my son is a reader (I would have cried if my kids had turned out not to be readers!) – I figure whatever path you choose, you can’t go wrong if you have time for books and reading.

        I guess it’s difficult when you’re in the thick of year 11 and 12 to keep in mind that it is just a small part of a big picture. I remember doing very badly on a maths test in year 10 and my mum saying to me “It might not seem like it right now, but this test will have no bearing on the rest of your life.” She was right – the actual test made no difference in the long run but it’s funny that that conversation did – after that I was more aware of the bigger picture, knowing that all the work I’d put in over the years wouldn’t amount to zero.

        Agree – Chris Lilley is the master of uncomfortable truths.

        Don’t apologise for long comments – it’s lovely having dialogue about good stuff and I thank you for taking the time 🙂

  4. Wow, this sounds like a very complex book! It seems like the lack of chronological ordering would have to be handled very well for that not to be confusing. And what complex themes! I haven’t ever noticed any private school snobbery among the people I’ve interacted with, so I’m curious how much this book would resonate with me as someone unfamiliar with Australian society. Great review!

  5. Thoroughly enjoyable review – thanks.
    I have a friend who went to a similar boys school for similar reasons and found reading this book quite uncomfortable at times.

    We also had the same issue when we chose a public school for our boys high school education in Sydney. We feel it’s important for them to work out how to get on with people from all walks of life, sooner rather than later.

    I’ve been hosting an AusREading Month on my blog that finishes in a few days time. I you’d like to pop over to the master post, you could add a link for this post (and any other Aussie books) you’ve read during November to Mr Linky.

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