Sometimes you learn far more about a country by reading fiction than what’s being written in the newspapers, in history books, in current affairs coverage. Barracuda is an important book, particularly given the diabolical state of Australian politics as we come towards the end of 2013, but also in spite of it. Because Barracuda reminds us of our place amongst it – being a self-righteous, fearful, lazy country is no good when you’re a drop in the ocean. What really matters is that we be good people. That we’re kind, loyal and supportive to our friends and family. That we tell the people around us that we love them and appreciate them.
This is a book that comes highly anticipated. Tsiolkas’ previous novel The Slap was incredibly successful, and opened up a field of new readers to Tsiolkas’ work. In many ways, Barracuda takes up where The Slap left off, and again holds a mirror up to contemporary Australia in a way that is simultaneously critical, divulging and affectionate. Barracuda tells the story of a young swimmer, Danny Kelly, who wins a scholarship to a private school to pursue the sport to the highest level, and how his desperation to be the best moulds him, breaks him, and ultimately makes him the man he becomes.
As a child I learnt the violin. I was chosen for a high school specialist music program. Like Danny, I was driven and easily motivated. I loved to play. It was my outlet for self-expression and it became tied to who I was. But, like Danny, I was forced to answer the question: what happens when you can’t be the best and you need to work out a second chance for yourself? And, like Dan, I struggled with that sense of failure. I also took a chance to go overseas, to explore new places and new ideas. Like Dan, I learnt what it is to be Australian by leaving and by coming back. We often talk about first learning to appreciate Australia when we’re away, but it’s more than that. It’s about appreciating it when we get back. When the shock of the accent and the pace and the weather and the open space and the claustrophobia of being home all hit you and you can’t run away anymore. You are forced to reconcile your place in this country and what the hell you’re going to do with yourself. There’s an anger, a disappointment, a grief that comes with it, and Tsiolkas describes this beautifully and powerfully.
Dan’s Olympic aspirations and the way this ties to his identity, both to himself and to others, allow Tsiolkas to explore ideas of class, politics, immigration and sexuality – not uncommon themes in his previous novels, or this excellent essay recently published in The Monthly – but Barracuda goes further and casts a spotlight on the impact of sport on the Australian psyche. It’s also a novel about family, sense of place, friendship and love. It is a big book with big themes, but I found it captivating. It is equally tough and nurturing, much like it’s central character. Like The Slap it can be incredibly confronting and unsettling, but it is also touching and sincere. Barracuda is the kind of book that I have a great deal of trouble putting away in the bookshelf. I want to keep it close and be constantly reminded of it. It has stayed with me and refuses to let go.
As much time has been spent trying to discover what Australia’s national dish is that has been spent discussing what makes us Australian. On the afternoon that I finished reading Barracuda, I was trying to think of a dinner that would match the book. I though about preparing something particularly ‘Australian’ like barbequed seafood. Then I thought about cooking something that’s familiar to the little pocket of Australia I live in – where much of Barracuda is set – an area where Anglo-Celtic mixes with Greek, Lebanese, Iraqi and many other pockets of the globe. But then I was reminded of the beautiful sentiment Dan expresses at the end of the book (desperately avoiding spoilers here!) and I realised that it didn’t actually matter what I cooked. The main thing was that I prepared it with care and ate it with people I love. So I cooked an everyday meal – beef ragu with buckwheat pasta and a green salad (loosely based on this Jamie Oliver recipe and adapted by my dear friend Scott) – and I ate it with my partner as the sun was setting on a beautiful spring day in Melbourne. And that act of sitting with my partner and being grateful for him, for our apartment, for the city I call home and the for country I live in, was my way of being a better person at that moment in time, and that’s exactly what Christos Tsiolkas uses Barracuda to tell us to be.