The author of Barracuda, Christos Tsiolkas, wrote the bestselling Australian novel of the last few years, The Slap. For a little while, it seemed as if everyone I knew was talking about the book (in particular the rights and wrongs of hitting children, as The Slap is about what happened after a child was slapped by an adult who was not their parent at a BBQ). The story was eventually made into a drama for Australian television, and then re-made for the American market.
While I didn’t like any of the characters in The Slap, I did enjoy the story and author’s style. I absolutely loved the experience of reading a contemporary novel set in Melbourne, where I live.
As a writer, Chris Tsiolkas doesn’t seem to be afraid of much in the way of topics. Barracuda has a crack at race, religion, politics and class, sexuality, bullying, violence, family relations and friendship, and the importance of sport in modern Australia, particularly in Melbourne. I can verify this. Melbourne is considered the sporting capital of Australia. To justify this title, I can advise we’ve just been given a public holiday for the AFL Grand Final in September. (Go Cats!) We already have a public holiday for the Melbourne Cup, (a horse race), and on our most special day as Australians, ANZAC Day, when we celebrate those who have fought for our country, we have a game of football which has somehow become iconic, which sporting commentators call a ‘battle.’
Barracuda is the story of Dan Kelly, a young swimmer who hates himself.
Dan, who comes from a working class family, won a scholarship to a private boy’s school on the strength of his talent as a swimmer. Faster, stronger, better, is the mantra which constantly runs through his head. Dan’s dream is to win a gold medal swimming at the Sydney 2000 Olympics.
Dan’s time at school is difficult, where he is surrounded by rich boys whose fathers rule Melbourne business and politics. Despite Dan’s ‘Skippy’ name, he is a ‘wog’ – half Greek on his mother’s side. To further add to the drama of his family, Dan’s mother was brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness. She is now considered to be dead by her family after marrying out of her religion. Dan feels unable to win the respect of his father, who is a truck driving, Labor voting, blue collar union man.
Dan is gay and although he doesn’t seem to recognise this while he is at school, he is in love with one of his schoolmates.
Dan’s biggest champions are his younger brother and sister, to whom he is a hero, his mother, who loves him unconditionally and his coach, Frank Torma, a Hungarian man who tells Dan to always have an answer to a bully’s insult.
The story jumps back and forwards through time, with Dan sometimes being tormented and at other times being the aggressor, from behaving so badly that he feels he will never live down the shame, to being a generous and loving man. At times this story made me cringe. The sex in the novel is graphic and on occasion, violent.
As expected, I enjoyed the familiarity of this story being set in Melbourne.
I enjoyed Barracuda and expect it will be a story I think about in years to come, as was The Slap.