I am thrilled to host this post by Amanda who responded to my call on the Australian Women Writers Challenge for a review of Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic, which won the Best Writing Award in this year’s Melbourne Prize for Literature awards. However, Amanda does not have a place to post reviews on-line, so we agreed that I would post it here so it can then be added to the AWW database. Thanks very much Amanda!
Amanda notes that Tumarkin has her own web page, and that Axiomatic has also been shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards to be announced at the end of Jan 2019.
Having lived outside Australia for several decades I had not heard of Tumarkin. A professor in Creative Writing at Melbourne University, she is the author of several non-fiction titles, Axiomatic being her 4th and her first with Brow Books publishing – an independent, not-for-profit publisher dedicated to innovative writing at about marginalised topics.
At the time of this review, Axiomatic had won the Melbourne Prize for Literature’s 2018 Best Writing Award. And Axiomatic is great writing but it is also flawed.
More like a compilation of long essays, the title is derived from 5 axioms which are the themes driving each section of the book. The writer then goes on through the essays to dispel the axiom through a collection of real life case studies and experiences.
She opens with her strongest and most heart-wrenching piece “Time Heals All Wounds” about teenage suicide in Australia. Tumarkin’s writing is a powerful composite of investigative journalism, analytical thinking and literary technique. Brutal and unflinching – delivering a punch to the gut – Tumarkin is able to conjure in the mind’s eye all the complexities and nuances of grief, love and survival through snippets of conversation and quotidian details. She includes numerous references to contemporary writers, classical literature, Greek mythology and philosophers, deftly combining both fiction and non-fiction.
In terms of critiques – and there are a few – the writing never lets up. There is no pause, no distraction, no break in the narrative for the reader apart from what is self-imposed. Sentences have been meticulously crafted and her writing sings, but it’s hard to appreciate it all because Axiomatic is so unrelenting.
Tumarkin’s arguments are also often convoluted. She veers off on tangents at the slightest provocation and then expands these into auxiliary sections. Her analysis is at its best in the first three sections when dealing with complex social issues, and is less effective and more self-indulgent when focusing on her personal friendships and relationships. (The last section – “You Can’t Enter the Same River” – seems out of place). The book is uneven in quality.
Axiomatic is not balanced nor fair in its judgments. Some would question Tumarkin’s right to take a position on any of these subject but, as she states herself, this has never stopped her in the past, and it certainly doesn’t now. She likes “to kick the floorboards out from under her readers”, so are the shock techniques of her writing her key selling points? If so, she is selling short the stories of these survivors.
Reasoning aside, what Axiomatic lacks from a visceral perspective is hope. Fictitious happy endings are overrated, but hope is not. Tumarkin puts forth unattainable Utopian standards both for society and its participants in order to fix its ills, and therefore Axiomatic is ultimately nihilistic.
As a reader, the one question I have is – what does Tumarkin wish to achieve with this book? She paints in grim detail an Australian society bereft with failings. The unsung heroes rallying against the system and circumstances are alone. But these problems of teenage suicide, poverty, abuse ,corruption and inadequate systems are perennial and can be made about many countries.
There are no easy solutions to these problems. Tumarkin does not have the answers. Most readers will be both devastated and frustrated with the pieces – is it meant to serve as a rally cry for the rest of us to do more to rectify these issues? You can’t read Axiomatic and not be moved – but then what do you do with this awareness?
If you’ve read Axiomatic, Amanda and I would love to know what you think about it, and Tumarkin’s intentions?
Brow Books, 2018
8 thoughts on “Maria Tumarkin, Axiomatic (Guest post by Amanda) (#BookReview)”
Wow! To say that I am impressed by the courage of this review is an understatement. It isn’t easy to stand against the tide of positive reviews and awards but Amanda’s review is cogent and thoughtful, and (I have to say) consistent with a view that I formed after reading the much-praised Traumascapes. I thought then that Tumarkin’s work was opinionated, judgemental and unkind, and I could have described it as grim and nihilistic too.
We do need writers to deliver home truths, but I think Amanda is right: we need hope too, and an unrelenting, sour view of our universe achieves very little.
If Amanda doesn’t have her own blog, can guest reviews from her incisive pen find a home at Whispering Gums?
Thanks very much Lisa! I haven’t read any Tumarkin yet so have nothing to compare this with. There is another promised review coming from Amanda in a week or so she says. After that, let’s see if she is interested enough to continue. I’d certainly be happy to host more.
On the hope issue, I certainly agree that we need hope – but then I’m an optimist so I naturally have hope! I’m not sure though that that means EVERYTHING we read, see or hear HAS to offer it. It just means, to me, that we need balance in these things.
BTW I was given Axiomatic for Christmas, so I am very interested to read it now after Amanda’s review.
Good on you for hosting this review Sue, Amanda leaves no doubt about what she thinks. Perhaps you could run a second blog for young iconoclasts. I can’t comment about Tumarkin, though I’m definitely in favour of writing “not balanced nor fair in its judgments”. I wonder if Amanda is right and we should leave room for hope. Even when the situation is hopeless?
Thanks Bill. Good question. As I said to Lisa, I don’t think everything has to offer hope. Regardless, as an optimist, I would find it hard to believe that “the situation is hopeless”. I think that, being an optimist, I can tolerate quite a bit of hopelessness because I probably can’t actually believe it really is hopeless! Head in sand perhaps, but it’s how I survive.
I am really looking forward to reading this book.
Lost what I wrote for some reason. I think Amanda’s review is unfair. Long before Tumarkin won her prizes I was taken by her unusual style and her unflinching eye. To my mind, the survivor overcoming trope endemic in our memoirs and creative nonfiction has frayed. So Tumarkin’s truth telling makes us feel uncomfortable? That, in my opinion, is exactly what writers are supposed to do. I admire the craft of the entertainers, but the writers I respect are the ones like Tumarkin who throw a strong light on the failures of our society, with prose as challenging as their ideas. Hers is a unique voice and Axiomatic is up there with her best.
Oh thanks Sara. The more I hear about this book the more determined I am to read it. Clearly she gets people talking.
I think Amanda will be interested in your perspective because my reading is that she’s genuinely mystified about what Tumarkin’s intentions are.
I am going to try to read this next, though I am behind in my review reading.
I think I’m up there with Sara on this one. My view is that this is a fine work by a very deep thinking author who comes with a perspective very influenced by her life experience. Tumarkin might not spare much in her gaze – this includes herself. I actually don’t agree that there is no hope in her work. I find hope in her analysing the issues she does in the way she does. With writers such as this, there is always hope for our society.
Thanks Ian … I like your definition of hope. It accords more with mine – but I’ll reserve final judgement until I read it. Great gift, thank you.