book reviews, Dog-eared hauls

Awe at our vulnerability to misfortune [Book review: Maria Tumarkin – Axiomatic]

Axiomatic was published by Brow Books in 2018.


Just now, on the bus, I was finishing Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic, which seems to have caused some ripples in the Australian literary scene. Its mournful cover design – stark white title over a smudgy pattern of charcoal black and grey – has popped up on my Instagram time and time again. I’ve seen the book displayed prominently in local stores. People have told me it’s really very special. They were right.

It’s difficult to describe what Axiomatic is about. Or even what it is. The back cover makes no attempt to elucidate, merely offering a quietly raving quote by Helen Garner – ‘Nobody can write like Maria Tumarkin’ – and a few words on the past’s way of remaining present within our lives. ‘How to speak of its aliveness? Stories are not enough, history and psychology – not enough. Maybe this is how.’

My partner started reading Axiomatic before I got around to it. ‘It’s about teen suicide,’ she said. ‘Not really a topic I would have chosen myself, but it’s actually very good. Very empathic.’

Picking up the book about a week later, I found it is indeed about teen suicide. Or rather, the first part is. Then Axiomatic is about an elderly couple struggling to keep custody of the grandson they have been raising, going so far as to hide him away from the authorities in a secret room. All efforts prove in vain: the estranged mother, who abandoned the boy years before, whisks him away to a life of abuse and neglect. The grandmother is sent to jail. Born in a Polish ghetto where through hiding away she narrowly avoided deportation herself, she feels as if the Nazis are at the door again: ‘I came to this country thinking it was a civilized society. How wrong I was. It’s a wild, wild West. A modern country filled with barbarians.’ Next, the book follows a community lawyer trying – and often failing – to help those whose demise seems mapped out from the start. The doomed ones. The broken ones. Those who come from a ‘tar pit’ of multi-generational poverty, powerlessness, drug addiction.

More stories follow, and all the stories are tragic. Or maybe they aren’t quite stories. Case studies. Meditations, laments. Whatever they are, they grapple with the way the past enters our bodies, enters our minds, gets under our skin – the past being upbringing, privilege and lack thereof, grief. For some, it’s war, abuse or addiction too.

Tumarkin seems desperate to communicate something vital about who we are, who we become as life has its way with us. Even as words falter, she pushes on. ‘The straining, clumsy language at our disposal,’ she notes about the grief of suicide survivors, ‘feels like a stand-in for the real language to come.’ Her writing emerges from a place of seeing first-hand, of intimately getting to know those who have been mauled most viciously by life. She’s like an anthropologist without a research question, relying on empathy and power of observation alone as she steps into the dark.

Now that I’ve brought up anthropology: at times Axiomatic reminds me of Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ great monograph Death Without Weeping (1989), which deals with life in the shantytowns of Brazil’s Nordeste region. Immersing herself in the lives of people trapped in these hopeless environments, Scheper-Hughes was confronted with almost unimaginable horrors – children slowly dying of hunger in front of their parents’ eyes, people’s loved ones being arrested and then disappearing without a trace or even an explanation. They just never came home. Growing up in a world like that, she realized, literally destroys people on the inside. When child mortality is just another part of everyday life, even something so seemingly fundamental as mother’s love can be extinguished – hence the title of her book. Children in the shantytowns went unmourned because there was more death piling up than the mind could ever hope to process. Looking back on her fieldwork, Scheper-Hughes noted that all she could really do was testify. It was no longer about science, about wanting to understand, or even about wanting to change. It was more primal than that.

Tumarkin testifies with the same sense of urgency. She too has stepped outside of the cushioned realm inhabited by the comfortable classes, sat next to the suffering, listened to their stories. She too understands how deeply trauma can undermine one’s very sense of self:

How about all those people for whom their life does not feel precious? Why not is often the easy bit to get: they were abused, abandoned, beaten to the point of forgetting they had a body, betrayed, humiliated, caught out by their socioeconomics like a mole in a spring trap. […] A harder question is can the feeling your life’s worth shit be fixed, whether from outside in or inside out? Can it? All the services offering legal aid, food, counseling, employment (tedious employment), shelter, they cannot get close to this worth-shit feeling.

According to Aristotle, tragedy – he was talking about stage plays – arouses fear and pity in us. Quoting Raimond Gaita, Tumarkin explains that for the Greeks pity did not have the connotation of condescension it has for us. Rather, it denoted ‘a sorrowful compassion that is marked through and through by awe at our vulnerability to misfortune’. That’s what this book’s tapestry of tragedy leaves you with. Sorrowful compassion. Awe. ‘When I am walking the streets of my city’, Tumarkin writes, ‘I cannot stop myself imaging abused children hiding in adult bodies.’ I look around and take in the harsh faces of the people filling up the bus seats. For a moment, I feel a sense of vertigo.

Difficult to classify as it may be, Axiomatic is an important work of literature. It accomplishes the task – maybe literature’s essential task – of shoving readers out of the confines of their own mind, of increasing empathy, understanding. For that, it deserves to be read.


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