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Tsiolkas is known for his blunt and often crude style, and for narratives that focus on Australian cultural, sexual and class minorities. His previous novel, The Slap (2008) was adapted into a popular mini series of the same name by the ABC and explored the devastating ripple effect a small indiscretion can have on people from all levels of Australian society. It’s been far too long since I’ve read it to give it a proper review, needless to say, I thought it brilliant, and if you haven’t read it, add it to the ‘to read’ pile.
In my first year at uni we studied his debut novel, Loaded (1995), about a young, gay Greek man who struggles to reconcile the life of sex, drugs and partying he wants with the more conservative lifestyle his traditional Greek family expect him to lead. From memory (first year uni feels like a lifetime ago), it was just the kind of rattling wake-up call an eighteen-year-old, upper-middle-class private school girl, as I was then, needed to realise that the real world is nothing like the Disneyland she’d been lead to believe.
That said, my relationship with Tsiolkas’ work is a little uneasy. I’ve never found his books ‘enjoyable’. For the most part the ones that I’ve read are violent, angry and unrelenting—full of cutting words that demand we address the myriad problems with our nation of supposed equal rights and opportunities. But they also make the social personal. Tsiolkas’ characters are rarely likable, but they are human. And though his protagonists’ relationships with lovers, family and friends are often deeply troubled, it is the painful and honest interactions between characters that give his novels a raw and tender beauty.
Barracuda is no exception to the rule. Danny Kelley, the son of a Scottish truckie and a Greek hairdresser, has the makings of a champion swimmer. He wants to be ‘the strongest, the fastest, the best’. In his early teenage years he is awarded a scholarship to Melbourne’s most prestigious private boys’ school—a school which Danny refers to throughout the novel as ‘Cunts College’. There he determines to fit in with his wealthy classmates, at the expense of alienating his friends and family, and sets his sights on Olympic gold.
The narrative alternates between charting the triumphs of Danny’s teenage swimming years and the life he’s left with after the dream turns sour, recounting the series of unfortunate events and poor choices that sever his fantasy from reality, and his struggle to rebuild his understanding of who he is.
It’s a confronting read for a number of reasons, not least of which for posing the daunting questions: What will we sacrifice to realise our dreams? What if we fail? What if we aren’t good enough for the thing we want more than anything—the only thing we have ever truly desired? What if, after all our finger pointing, we are the architects of our own destruction? And, perhaps most terrifying of all, what if that elusive thing we’ve been chasing has made us monstrous, blind to all the other real and tangible things we should have been holding close?
In posing these personal questions, Tsiolkas is also asking us to consider our wider social and cultural values: the disproportionate emphasis our nation places on sport, our ostensibly non-existent class system and the uneasy relationship between ‘mainstream’ (read white, middle-class) Australian culture and the religious and cultural beliefs observed by immigrant and mixed-race families that can tear those families apart.
In hindsight, I really appreciated Barracuda, and I read it in just two days. However, I found it a challenging read. I wasn’t shocked by the graphic sex and violence—this is Tsiolkas, after all—but I felt it unnecessarily graphic in places, such as when Danny and his prison mate lover ejaculate and urinate into tissues for each other to eat when they can’t be physically intimate.
Danny is also a difficult character to get close to. In fact, for most of the novel I just wanted to slap him really hard for being an ignorant, ungrateful and self-centred shitbag. That is, of course, the point, but it doesn’t make for cosy reading.
While I found Barracuda didactic in places, I also think that, as a nation, we need to people like Tsiolkas to sledgehammer us with their ideas occasionally, because unless they do, they’re not going to attract the place they deserve in our cultural discourse.
In his writing, bold and unsettling as it is, Tsiolkas rejects the passive reader. With his direct and explicit language, he forces us to consider difficult questions about our class, culture and values and to acknowledge the personal grief and agony caused when we don’t. In this, Barracuda is no exception, and more than worth the challenge.