You may have read The Slap or seen the series on TV. Both were great, both were hard to read and watch, but the story stays with you. It’s an ugly world that Tsiolkas portrays – full of contrary characters that do not behave in a way that engenders much empathy. As The Slap progressed however the characters became slightly less polarising, reasons for behaviours began to be understood – and by completion I pronounced this a great read, one of my favourites in fact.
After the success of the The Slap, Tsiolkas’s next book, Barracuda would always be a hard act to follow. I had read some ambivalent reviews so started reading with a sense of trepidation, a feeling that was not altogether unfounded as it turned out. If you thought The Slap was tough, it is a walk in the park compared to Barracuda.
Danny Kelly is offered a scholarship to an elite Melbourne school. He is part Greek and comes from the wrong sides of the tracks, his classmates are privileged, blond blue-eyed clear skinned boys, beside them Danny feels ugly and poor. What he has in his favour however is a precocious swimming ability, he lives for swimming, he only feels alive when he is torpedoing through the water leaving his fellow swimmers floundering in his wake. This is his power and his status. He is going to the top and thoughts of the Sydney Olympics are never far from anyone’s mind.
It doesn’t give anything away to say that it all goes wrong, badly wrong. Wrong to the point that you wish you could just end the shame and humiliation that Danny feels – the only way to do this is to give up on the book – I nearly did, then I started skipping the really torrid bits, it all got a bit much. For some reason I continued on, perhaps because there were moments like this for me with The Slap yet I still enjoyed it.
Did I ‘enjoy’ Barracuda? The short answer is no, the longer answer takes more explaining. Let’s just say that if you don’t want to read explicit depictions of gay sex, or about the gut-wrenching effects of shame on a young man, his self-loathing and obsessive hatred of his fellow classmates/family/ society etc then this is not the book for you.
However somewhere amongst all this angst there is a good story, there is redemption and closure, there is fuller understanding of the psyche of a nation obsessed with sport, and with a young man who is hurt and confused. There is also understanding of the class and race disputes that perhaps Australians would prefer remained hidden. It would be going to far to say this was a great read, but something of Danny has remained with me, I really hope he does well.