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The ocean will have us all
on 10 June 2014
Australia lionises its swimmers. They are recognised; they have nicknames; they are showered with sponsorship and gifts.
Danny Kelly, a schoolboy from Melbourne’s unfashionable northern suburbs has been awarded a swimming scholarship at one of the top private schools. He’s an outsider, but once he beats the rich kids in the pool he finds himself welcomed by those who had first given him the cold shoulder. He is christened Barracuda in recognition not only of his swimming talent but also his pugnacious attitude. The school swimming coach, Frank Torma, offers personal training twice a day and entertains the elite swimmers at his house, buying in the best pizzas they will ever eat. Danny’s future is already written.
For a moment, we could be forgiven for imagining ourselves in a Chris Cleave novel.
But, as each chapter progresses relentlessly forward from 1994 to the present day, the chapters have little codas in which time starts now and works backwards. After a couple of chapters, it becomes clear that there is a disconnect between the anticipated future and reality. There is one chapter, at the end of Part One, where the unwinding future narrative and the forward paced main narrative pass one another. That is the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the moment Danny and coach Torma had been planning for…
As in The Slap, Christos Tsiolkas shows us the seamy, venal, unsympathetic face of modern Melbourne. It’s back in Barracuda – the bigoted, blinkered views are on display in abundance. There’s the Jehovah’s witnesses; the chip-on-the-shoulder working class Scot; the grand old lady; the gay lover; the Turkish tomboy; and Frank Torma, the sports mad Slav. Danny is selfish and whingey; he sees others purely in terms of what they can – or won’t – do for him. Danny does change through the course of the novel, and we come to reappraise a number of the characters. We start to see human sides behind the veneer, but it doesn’t totally excuse the behaviour.
As some people tiresomely point out, there are some sweary words in Barracuda. But there’s nothing quite as rude as the way Tsiolkas bursts our bubbles – holds up a mirror and shows us what we really are. Danny may be superficial, but we are even more so for caring about his destiny. As in The Slap, we are left feeling that we, as with the characters, are essentially ephemeral, doing things of no consequence against a background of relentless progress that will sweep us away into oblivion.