Maria Tumarkin's Axiomatic is an unnerving and thrilling read

Maria Tumarkin, "relentless, instinctive and street-smart" in her writing. Picture: Mike Hass

Maria Tumarkin, "relentless, instinctive and street-smart" in her writing. Picture: Mike Hass

  • Axiomatic, by Maria Tumarkin. Penguin, $24.99.

What do humans do with their pain? This question lies at the heart of all the concerns Maria Tumarkin tackles in this arresting collection of essays.

Each of the pieces within are headed with an axiom which Tumarkin then proceeds to turn inside out and upside down as she searches for a kernel of truth within the shop-worn phrase.

Her style is relentless, instinctive and street-smart, her punctuation gloriously pithy, and her writing continues to earn her plaudits here and overseas.

In 2020, Tumarkin won the Windham Campbell Prize for non-fiction, one of the world's richest literary awards. Later that year, Axiomatic, originally published by Melbourne indie Brow Books, was bought by Penguin and re-published earlier this year.

In the first piece in the collection, "time heals all wounds", Tumarkin takes the magnifying glass to suicide, and teen suicide in particular.

With an intimate and multi-layered approach, she allows emotions large and small to bubble up in interviews with family members, psychologists and teachers.

It's almost as if a linear or typically journalistic narrative would be anathema to her when dealing with such deep wounds and complex issues. Tumarkin's writing here is sharply contemporary, while never sloppy or banal.

This is one of her great strengths: to tap into the tone of our times, artfully side-stepping its glibness.

In "those who forget the past are condemned to re-", she pieces together the story of a grandmother and a Holocaust survivor, now living in Melbourne. The woman is imprisoned for kidnapping her grandson. She took the boy from his mother and thuggish new stepfather, and hid him in a concealed space in her house when police came knocking.

At her trial, the grandmother sits stony-faced in the dock, refusing to plead her case. Her crime, Tumarkin suggests, is not so much kidnapping the boy, as constructing a hidden room in which she hid the child when the house was searched. This was simply too bizarre for Australian authorities, who could not conceive of hiding a child in this manner as an act of love.

For a Holocaust survivor however, the opposite is true. Tumarkin's skill here is to bring to life a fierce and loving woman who went to extraordinary lengths to protect her grandson. In the authorities who sent the boy back to a chaotic home, the woman sees the same barbarism from which she fled 60 years earlier.

Australians, Tumarkin says, are practiced at a sort of double forgetting. We have forgotten the meaning of conflicts like WWII and its legacy for survivors. Before that, we tried to erase 140 years of frontier wars.

"you can't enter the same river twice" is structurally the most interesting in the collection. Two columns run down the page. How to read this piece? If you start out thinking one column represents Tumarkin and the other her best friend Sasha, who stayed in Ukraine when Tumarkin's family migrated, you will lose your footing when the columns later run across the page or the voices jump from left to right.

Why tear the story into strips like this? Migration and its losses have been examined and re-examined for centuries. But this piece is different. There is no sweet sorrow, no migrant-makes-good triumph here.

Instead, there is experience which will not be tamed, of two 16-year-old girls, utterly devoted to each other who are torn apart when one of them leaves. This is our world, she seems to say, this is the price of migration.

In "give me a girl before the age of seven and I will show you the woman", Tumarkin returns to questions of childhood, family and the Holocaust. The story of Vera, also a Polish Jew who was hidden in occupied Lvov during WWII, is one of the most intimate and oddly tender in the collection. In it, Tumarkin wrestles with the very act of writing.

She finds it unconscionable to tamper with Vera's recollections, which include sentences like the following: "My mother was being looked after by my uncle, who was f***ing her. The hiding place was available to us on condition that my uncle would get sexual comfort from my mother."

It is irrepressible Vera who provides a motif with which to close the piece. Vera returns to Lvov, visits their former apartment, the ghetto and even their hiding place. She recounts all of this in a matter-of-fact manner. "So there you are," she concludes. Simple, uncontestable: I am. I exist in spite of everything I've seen and experienced.

This is an unnerving and thrilling read. At her best, Tumarkin mines the particular and then transcends it. She is utterly, blessedly unique, and her work will change the way we write and read non-fiction now and into the future.

  • Christine Kearney is a Canberra-based writer and reviewer.
This story Unique, street-smart and thrilling first appeared on The Canberra Times.