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How to speak of the searing, unpindownable power that the past—ours, our family’s, our culture’s—wields in the present?

In five sections, Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic tells true and intimate stories of a community dealing with the extended aftermath of a suicide, a grandmother’s quest to kidnap her grandson to keep him safe, one community lawyer’s battle inside and against the justice system, the effects of multigenerational trauma, and the history of the author’s longest friendship. In writing that is inventive, bold, and generous, Axiomatic introduces an unforgettable voice.

244 pages, Kindle Edition

First published May 1, 2018

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About the author

Maria Tumarkin

8 books63 followers
Maria Tumarkin is a writer and cultural historian. Her most recent book, AXIOMATIC, will be published by Transit Books in the US in September 2019. She is the author of three previous books of ideas Traumascapes, Courage, and Otherland, all of which received critical acclaim in Australia, where she lives.

In Australia, Axiomatic, won the Melbourne Prize for Literature’s Best Writing Award.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 164 reviews
Profile Image for Beale Stainton.
32 reviews4 followers
July 12, 2018
After reading Axiomatic, I sat with a friend, out on a headland (could say it’s home) of one of Sydney’s eastern beaches, with beers in hand, while he strummed a guitar, life seeming pleasant and untouched. “I just read this book” I said. “There’s a section in it about high school kids committing suicide, and others about sexually abused children growing up to be homeless and drug addicted. There’s this longer section about a child holocaust survivor who becomes a rather prominent woman. I believe the author wrote a previous book about trauma. You really sense the pain, suffering and loss of the characters involved in each story”.

To which my friend replied, as a cold wind set in and the lowered sun yellowed the cliff edged houses of Gordon’s Bay, “bro why would you read a book like that? There’s so much else you can read”.

I often ask myself that same question, while reading books of great emotional pain, perhaps it’s due to the same reason everyone in this world watches what they watch, listens to what they listen to, reads what they read. Tumarkin’s writing is an exceptionally well distilled drop of the old humanity channel, with a compelling genius understanding of time and history.

It is a reminder of how resilient we are.
Profile Image for Paula Mota.
966 reviews309 followers
February 14, 2022

Costumo ser muito certeira na não-ficção que escolho e raramente me desiludo, mesmo sabendo à partida pouco sobre as obras. Dou preferência a memórias sobre pessoas carismáticas ou com vidas diferentes da minha, bem como a ensaios, especialmente sobre literatura, mas se escritos no tom certo, até podem versar sobre política, ciência ou natureza. Com “Axiomático”, deixei-me iludir pelo título, que me parecia ter muito potencial, estando dividido em capítulos com títulos tão prosaicos como “O tempo cura todas as feridas” ou tão heraclitianos como “Nenhum homem pode banhar-se duas vezes no mesmo rio”. A abordagem dos temas, porém, é muito superficial e estroboscópica, com tantos testemunhos que parece um documentário de televisão transcrito para papel.
Iludi-me também em relação ao nome da autora, Maria Tumarkin, que sendo de origem ucraniana, vive desde muito nova na Austrália. Eu, eurocêntrica assumida e despudorada, sem qualquer interesse em relação à sociedade e à cultura do Novo Mundo actual, não esperava ensaios tipo pop, com okays e tcharan e palavrões, sobre a vida nos antípodas.
Profile Image for Michael Livingston.
795 reviews246 followers
May 17, 2018
Powerful and strange - Tumarkin has written something truly original. I was occasionally left floundering a bit, trying to make connections between sections and I think a second read would add to the experience, but there's so much in here about trauma, memory and human experience. It's worth the effort.
Profile Image for Veronica.
249 reviews97 followers
June 5, 2018
A completely unique book by a genius writer/thinker. A great richness of ideas infuses Axiomatic, a questing and teasing at the limits of humanity, a grim and terrible beauty laced with agony and ache.
Profile Image for Calzean.
2,599 reviews1 follower
February 4, 2019
There's parts of this book that are achingly sad. The author is a deep thinker and a wizard with words. She covers how schools react to suicides and deaths, the injustice of the justice system, mental illness, a survivor of the holocaust, friendship, loneliness and humanity. Her writing is unique, enquiring, empathetic and personnel. A book of topics to think about.
Profile Image for ALPHAreader.
1,117 reviews
February 18, 2019
I need to sit on this collection of open-ended essays for a bit. But my first reaction was that they absolutely pulverised me, and I delighted in Maria's bruising focus.

A most worthy and exciting contender for The Stella Prize, and I'd love to see it make shortlist at least (though I also think it has a real shot at taking out the whole thing!)
Profile Image for Ellen.
969 reviews36 followers
August 12, 2018
A tumult of loosely tied thoughts, and I'm not so sure the structure lent itself to sense. Persevere and ponder.
Profile Image for Cassandra Austin.
Author 3 books22 followers
December 2, 2018
Extraordinary. Cell altering. I couldn't put it down and in fact, carried it around with me wherever I went.
Profile Image for Boy Blue.
446 reviews66 followers
August 30, 2021
That was the single heaviest book I've ever read, a lead weight that sinks straight to the pit of your stomach.

Tumarkin is relentless in her pursuit of trauma. She chases it through Warsaw's wartime ghettos, through Australian school yards quaking in the aftershocks of teen suicide, through the cracks in the justice system that the same maligned victims keep falling through. She corners it and forces it to talk back to us. It's not comfortable but deeply powerful.

Western society is not good at dealing with death. We're immunised from it by modernity. It's not something we discuss and the way we conduct our lives and even our funerals seems to skirt around it and pretend it's not there. I think that's partly why discussions about it are so heavy for us, because we never have them.

But this book isn't about the trauma of death, it's about the way trauma tears at the fabric of life.

The topics that Tumarkin addresses are the ones we rarely talk about. Topics too heavy for our daily lives. Yet they're also the topics that are the most important for a society to discuss. She mentions the twin feelings a Holocaust survivor has; wanting to tell everyone what happened so that it never happens again, and never wanting to talk about it again because no one could possibly understand and no words could ever explain.

Empathy burnout or fatigue is something that may make its way into the DSM in the next edition. It's something paramedics, or Emergency ward doctors get. But it's also there in therapists and workers in aged care. In fact I'd say at some stage we've all experienced some form of empathy burnout and if you haven't this book will get you close to it. It's got to be one of the most confronting feelings for a human being, you're dealing with serious life-ending or life-changing trauma and you can't feel anything. The worst parts of other people's lives and you are dead emotionally.

With a book like this it's always going to be hard to critique. It's just so heavy and I feel so unworthy. However, we're here and this is what this site is for.

The first section ‘Time Heals All Wounds’ needs to be read by everyone. Published on its own it would be one of the best essays of the last decade. So I implore you to go to the bookstore or library and just read those first 44 pages. However, I also warn you, be prepared to be hit by a fully laden freight train.

The other sections are equally powerful but their power is not as explicit. People seem concerned over whether they're chapters, or essays. Whether this book is a novel or a long series of interviews. It doesn't have a recognisable form and that's the point. You can't take all of this topic material and force it into an existing form, it is by nature convoluted and messy. Form follows function.

The last section must have been hard for Tumarkin to include because though it's not right to compare trauma and measure out what is worse or more unbearable, her own diary style personal experiences just don't hit with the same weight as the other material. I've struggled with whether it was self-indulgent and narcissistic to re-centre the book on her own life and trauma at the end and I guess in many ways that's part of what she's examining but I didn't enjoy that part.

Sometimes I felt Tumarkin reached for quotes when her own thought processes didn't resolve and this seemed more of a crime from someone who can create her own beauty with the pen. Though I have to say nearly every quote is spot on. The reference to Harry Potter really dropped the ball though. Sure J.K. Rowling said she wouldn't let magic bring people back to life but then she copied the bible and did a whole resurrection scene. Which also reminds me there were many times I thought the chance to examine religious/spiritual teachings and approaches were almost deliberately passed over.

The one thing that is always present in these narratives, it surfaces again and again but never gets a full examination, is time. It seems that time is the only solace, the only salve to deep trauma. Not that "time heals all wounds" because Tumarkin explicitly confronts that and says the wounds don't heal, you come to live with them. More that time allows you to forget. Not in an active way but by cramming more life between you and the event eventually it fades. Somehow I don't think that's going to happen with this book.
Profile Image for Tundra.
657 reviews29 followers
September 21, 2019
3 1/2 stars. Stories are made up of memories that in their snippets of fact and inconsistencies allow us to create a shared reality of sorts. In this series of ‘essays ‘ (and I’m not sure that’s what I should call them) Maria Tumarkin writes a collage. A collage that creates multi textured pictures using overlapping stories. These stories are discrete pieces with similar themes but I did struggle to make sense of an overall argument or point of view. The first essay was definitely the one that effected me the most. The topic of youth suicide is hard to read about and the personal reflections of those who have lost were powerful and honest.
Profile Image for Ali.
1,293 reviews106 followers
February 5, 2019
"One of the things about coming to this world from the Eastern European elsewhere (not that it matters much which elsewhere the elsewhere is) is that words do not often feel powerful in the world of Australia we’ve come to. Which is fine really. We have made our peace with this, accepted it, with gratitude almost, because we judged the well-known (to us) alternative—a world in which poets and their families were persecuted and killed for their words mattering too much—to be an evil much greater."

When I finished Tumarkin's Axiomatic, I had a lot of emotions and not a lot of clarified thoughts. It was a little like being hit with a beautifully articulated whirlwind, which left all these ideas scattered around. So - I turned to the first page and started reading again. To say I don't do this often is an understatement.
Tumarkin certainly understands the power of words. She wields them with a style that is duplicitously casual. Here, she is constantly sneaking up on the reader. A seeming stream of moving thoughts will suddenly land you somewhere unexpected, and yet totally expected, and then you realise you are holding your breath in because the words are so absorbing you've forgotten to breath. The book canters around discussions of hidden social corners - domestic violence, teen suicide, the cycle of criminalisation. Tumarkin's lens is never of research, always on people, even if it is their research they talk about. Other's perspectives, selves, personalities collide in her own consciousness, in whose stream, artful or accident (kidding, it is always artful) the action takes place. Tumarkin draws sharp portraits, but they acknowledge the location of their construction. This is her journey, and while at times it feels like we are clinging to her coattails, she never loses sight of where her readers are at.
It does, maybe, matter where the elsewhere is. The axioms that frame the journey all cycle around how the past determines the future, whether horrors mark us, give us wisdom or failings, how we deal with constraints that are woven around us over time. This feels a very European-infused perspective. The book is bookended by some of Tumarkin's own experiences, and in a text this intricately constructed, every idea echoes with the others - resonating might be a better word. Tumarkin brings a capacity to look unflinchingly into brutally hard decisions and difficult constraints that is hinted at above. Australia is not a country that is good at facing unpleasant truths, and while for a long time the voices of those migrants who survived horrors were roundly squelched with patronising smiles and proffered lamingtons, I'd like to think we are evolving to welcome these voices for the strength they bring.
In this, I'd starting thinking of Vera: My Story well before Ms Wasowski waltzed into the text with the feeling of bringing something full circle. Tumarkin's connection with her amplifies both their stories.
The book delves into analysis, and the sharpness of the writing can bring an idea to life. The problems of recurrent trauma are well understood and often discussed in the books I read, but never can I think of a better explanation than:
"Perhaps one way of putting it is that many of Vanda’s clients live their lives on a highway where they are repeatedly hit by passing trucks. As they are bandaging their wounds, cleaning them out with rainwater, putting bones back into sockets, another truck’s oncoming. A backlog of injuries functions not unlike a backlog of grief, an expression I first heard near the desert in the Kimberleys where backlog describes the unrelenting holding of funerals on Aboriginal land, leaving the living no time to mourn the dead, creating an imploding paralysis. That is what’s in the tar as well. Most people have a truck going over them at some period in their life. But on a highway you don’t get one or two. You get a convoy. They don’t stop. That’s the point. The recurrence is the point. The point’s the repetition."

At times, in truth, this approach bothered simply because Tumarkin's voice is so powerful, and this is not the academic, researched - or for that matter 'own voices' style storytelling - that I am comfortable with. Tumarkin's language can make you feel that you intimately understand something, when I'm not sure that that is an appropriate way to feel. I'm still not sure how I feel about this - it seems no worse than the brook-no-dissent style that much academic crap gets written in, untouchable because it comes from the Academy. And it seems ludicrous to blame a writer for being too good, so there you are.
Tumarkin herself has little time for approaches which presume a position to judge - and yet she also seems to condemn those who ignore the myriad of injustices around. She can be quite fierce, but the book has a tender feel. If all this feels contradictory, well yes, maybe I need to read it again. Thankfully, that is hardly a chore given her astonishing way with a phrase . I think I may stick above my desk her pithy " the idea of human dignity isn’t up to much if it does not encompass recognition that people who look like they have little or nothing may, in fact, have a great deal to lose."
Profile Image for Regan.
238 reviews
January 4, 2020
3.75/5 stars. I spent the end of 2019 in suspended animation, grieving but also numb. Axiomatic doesn't lift the burden of loss, but it shines a light on its ongoing, nearly incomprehensible weight. Tumarkin shreds the palliative axioms we tell each other, "Time heals all wounds," "Those who forget the past are condemned to re-," "History repeats itself," "You can't step in the same river twice," etc., and asks us to remember we exist in the crucible of the paradox, and we must look around if we are to see it for what it is.
Profile Image for Jodie Thomson.
58 reviews
September 26, 2018
Didn't like it.
Didn't like the way it was written.
Many of the opinions on the topics annoyed me.
I threw it across the room a couple of times (don't tell the library).
Profile Image for Jimmy.
512 reviews713 followers
August 10, 2020
axiom: (n) a statement that is regarded as self-evidently true.
Self evident? Or just unexamined? Does self evident stand for "passed down from generation to generation without thought"? If you examine it deeper, will you realize it's not self-evident at all? Or that it's not even evident. Or that it's not even true.

Using axioms as an organizing principle, does it work? Does she undress the axioms?

The sections are each an axiom: "Time heals all wounds," "Those who forget the past are condemned to re-," "History repeats itself," "You can't step in the same river twice," etc.

These beliefs we hold self evident by general consensus so that we cannot see the truth that would otherwise be evident if we didn't hold beliefs at all. To truly see without preconceived notions. The particularities that prove the sayings false time and time again we choose to ignore. We say: it's an outlier. Or: it can't happen to us.

These are not the only axioms she explodes. Some aren't so pithy, just beliefs without a saying:

Like the belief that helping people out a little is better than none at all. But in reality, it could do more harm:
“But what if the something good men and women do is largely nothing masquerading as a something, or if the something’s worse than nothing because it plucks people out of their own world then dumps them, with fewer resources, less hope, once the good people collapse in their inevitable moral exhaustion? Helping someone in unspoken expectation of their often impossible rehabilitation is frequently worse than not helping.”
Or the belief that children are innocent:
“Innocence—talking about that as the thing defining of children, and which trauma rips out of them… I like how an Australian philosopher, Joanne Faulkner, deals with innocence. Three big problems she says: first it’s a self-serving adult fantasy; also it makes adults give up on children believed to be no longer in possession of their innocence; finally it stops children participating in an ethical and civic life.”
The very last book I read, Edinburgh by Alexander Chee, also spoke to this topic:
“Do you remember what it was like, to be young? You do. Was there any innocence there? No. Things were exactly what they looked like. If anyone tries for innocence, it’s the adult, moving forward, forgetting. If innocence is ignorance of the capacity for evil, then it’s what adults have, when they forget what it’s like to be a child. When they look at a child and think of innocence they are thinking of how they can’t remember what that feels like.”
She's interested in examining trauma, obviously, but also in how institutions like schools, prisons, and the judicial system break down when dealing with individuals with trauma. They don't treat them like individuals. Institutions don't have compassion. She's also interested in cycles repeating themselves both in history (wars, violence) and in terms of personal histories (a suicide in the family means your chances of committing suicide go up).

Her tone reminds me of my friend Cid in its no bullshit manner of laying down the truth and judgements. Some would say she puts in a little too much of her own opinion, but I really enjoyed her perspective. I liked that this wasn't some no-skin-in-the-game type journalism.

Some references here I didn't get, and may be aimed more at an Australian audience. I was on vacation (I know this isn't vacation reading material, like maybe the LEAST vacation reading material out there, but I'm weird, I always read shit that's not vacation material on vacation. I also read Edinburgh and that one's about childhood sexual abuse) and did not have wifi access (thus no Google to Google the references).

GR review by Katarina: "the words sometimes feel like they're tumbling artlessly out of her mouth, sentences sometimes lack the punctuation I might expect, it feels mid-conversation; and yet you know that this book took many years of reflection and re-reflection."

I felt this too. There's no scene setting. Sometimes almost like we're reading directly from her journalist notebook. She starts in the middle of a thought. At first it was frustrating but once I got the hang of it, I liked it. You have to work to connect all the dots. And it felt like less clearing of the throat, less artifice (while still being artistically composed).

Like many others here, I didn't "get" the last chapter. It seemed buried in the author's own personal history, and not enough was shared for me to know what the hell she was talking about. It's ok, it was the shortest chapter, and the book didn't need it.

GR review by Amanda: "what Axiomatic lacks from a visceral perspective is hope. Fictious 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."

I'm highly suspicious of that word, unattainable. I was having this same thought while reading A Map to the Door of No Return by Dionne Brand (another excellent non-vacation read that I read during vacation!) when she was talking about how we turn away from those "on the edges" of society--and that is that if this pandemic has taught me anything, it is that nothing is unattainable.

If cities and whole countries can grind to a halt for this pandemic, then that means that if enough people cared about something to the point where we think it's unacceptable, then we can stop everything and address it. Doesn't mean we'd solve it, but at least we're not living with it like it's normal. If we decided that certain things are unacceptable--not just the pandemic, but

- poverty
- child abuse
- climate change

just to name three of many, then we can begin to address it in a humane way. A lot of what is "unattainable" is only so because it has not been attained (or we have not wanted to attain it badly enough as a society).

Also, a lot of these problems could be eased, maybe not solved but eased, by better public policy, more compassionate institutions, and more social safety nets. That's a first step, at least. Reducing suffering is not an all or nothing proposition. We can't say just because we can't fix everything, we might as well not try at all.
10 reviews1 follower
October 25, 2020
maria tumarkin has no right being THIS good. despite sharing so little in common by way of life experience with the people interviewed in this book, it not only drew me back to such specific moments in various phases of my life thus far — my childhood, adolescence, young adulthood — but also pulled me into my future. never have i read a more masterful meditation on the dialectic between possibilities/limitation and the friction it generates. how, maybe, all of our actions can somehow be at once meaningful and inconsequential. at no point did i feel distressed or suffocated by the heaviness of the themes canvassed. instead, i felt expansive and emboldened by the fact that turmarkin had somehow done /it/ — reached into the unknowable, feelings i thought were incapable of articulation, and distilled it into prose, insights i will carry with me for the rest of my life. my reading experience, particularly throughout parts 1, 3 and 5, was the equivalent to watching clouds in the night sky slowly drift past, revealing a radiant full moon. surrender and clarity, perhaps in equal parts.
170 reviews2 followers
December 16, 2018
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 arguments are also often convoluted. She veers off on tangent at the slightest provocation and then expands this into an auxiliary section. Her analysis is at its best in the first three sections when dealing with complex social issues, 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, 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. Fictious 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?
For those who would like to find out more Tumarkin has her own web page. Axiomatic is also short listed for the Victorian Premiers award for Fiction and Non-fiction to be awarded at the end of Jan 2019
Profile Image for Emmkay.
1,185 reviews77 followers
March 23, 2020
Non-fiction, somewhat like an essay collection, except the author is trying to do something less conventional and weaves round and in and out her tale, offering unusually structured sentences and sections. The focus is trauma, histories, how what people experience in this regard shapes their interaction with the world and their core self (or doesn’t). Tumarkin was born in the Ukraine and moved to Australia in her teens, now teaching creative writing in Melbourne. She speaks with people affected by adolescent suicides, an older woman who is a child Holocaust survivor, a community lawyer representing marginalized clients, a woman who went to prison for kidnapping her grandson. I sometimes connected firmly with it and was very struck by some passages and portions, but also found the oblique, in-and-out style frustrating.

Some quotes:
Perhaps one way of putting it is that many of Vanda’s clients live their lives on a highway where they are repeatedly hit by passing trucks. As they are bandaging their wounds, cleaning them out with rainwater, putting bones back into sockets, another truck’s oncoming. A backlog of injuries functions not unlike a backlog of grief, an expression i first heard near the desert in the Kimberleys where backlog describes the unrelenting holding of funerals on Aboriginal land, leaving the living no time to mourn the dead, creating an imploding paralysis. That is what’s in the tar as well. Most people have a truck going over them at some period in their life. But on a highway you don’t get one or two. You get a convoy. They don’t stop. That’s the point. The recurrence is the point. The point’s the repetition.”

“Certain prototypes assert themselves, usually later in life. And for those who took an oath a long time back to (I do not count myself in this group) under no circumstances become our parents this may feel like a form of possession, or like being possessed. You open your mouth and your mother’s voice comes out complete with your mother’s words. It’s like Mikhail Bakhtin’s idea that every utterance in this world contains in some way all the utterances that preceded it. We contain our parents, doesn’t mean we are them, it means we go from being inside of them to them being inside of us.”

“So this is how it is, I think. Stars rain from the sky like shards of glass. Time makes room for timelessness. Creation is always a catastrophe, a shattering. Everything has already happened. The past does not move through the present like a pointed finger or a shadowy figure in a long cloak. The past is not ‘told you so.’ Not ‘this is how it all began.’ It is a knock on the door in the middle of the night. You open the door and no one is there.”

“[I]n America, America in particular, childhood has for so long been used as self-explanation, or some form of self-diagnosis, and how regularly this verges on a cop-out, personally, culturally, also how blinding such determinism can be, flattening too, like a life’s a by-the-numbers backstory in an undistinguished Hollywood movie. Yet I see as well -took me a while -that of a million things happening to us in Babylon, toddlerhood, prepubescence, some are bound to turn into what Eva Hoffman calls ‘needles.’ Needles that ‘pricked your flesh’ then ‘could never be extracted again.’”

“Survival leaves you knowing both testimony and silence as tainted choices, each riddled equally with despair.”

“A survivor learns how to be alive and dead. A child survivor is a particular kind of survivor: an expert in doubleness.”
Profile Image for Kimbofo.
784 reviews159 followers
April 8, 2019
Writer and cultural historian Maria Tumarkin claims her latest book, Axiomatic, is NOT a collection of essays. “It is a book with chapters that are just a little unorthodox in the way they are structured and sit next to each other,” she says in an interview with the Stella Prize, for which she has been shortlisted.

However you choose to describe Axiomatic, I think it’s fair to say it is not easy to box in: it doesn’t fit a genre, seeing as it’s a heady mix of storytelling and reportage. To my mind, these pieces (or chapters) wouldn’t be out of place in a “high-brow” magazine — for instance, a colour supplement that comes with a weekend broadsheet — and as such I’d class them as journalistic features.

Content-wise, each piece looks at an axiom — an accepted truth — and examines, often in great detail and with much intellectual rigour and anecdotal evidence, as to whether it holds or can be debunked.

These five axioms are:

>> ‘Time Heals All Wounds’;
>> ‘Those Who Forget the Past are Condemned to Repeat It’;
>> ‘History Repeats Itself’;
>> Give Me a Child Before the Age of 7 and I’ll Give You the (Wo)Man’; and
>> ‘You Can’t Enter The Same River Twice’

I’m not going to review each chapter other than to say there are common themes running throughout Tumarkin’s work. She is very much focussed on time and how its passing can shape the past, present and future. She looks at its impact on the personal and the political, how it shapes our understanding of ourselves, our families, our popular culture and our institutions.

To read the rest of my review, please visit my blog.

March 18, 2019
I didn't enjoy the way this was written. I felt it was truly all over the place. I know most would disagree as I've only ever seen great reviews for this book and I was so excited to read it - but I just couldn't get hooked on it at all. Great topics, but too messy for me, personally.
408 reviews9 followers
June 27, 2018
A mesmerising but unsettling book. Tumarkin scrutinises the often-overlooked sectors of contemporary Australian society in five loosely linked chapters. Many of her characters suffer the on-going effects of childhood trauma, post war refugee/migration, holocaust survival, child abuse, the aftermath of suicide, plus the feasible inequity of our legal system.
There are no suggestions or solutions for grief management and or trauma counselling but hopefully such a book that lays bare such taboo or concealed topics (especially due to media blackouts for teenage suicides) could help to improve understanding and help unburden victims of abuse.
In “Time heals all wounds” Francis writes about her sister Katie’s suicide. She is able to put her thoughts into her creative writing for her year 12 and somehow manages to score well She mentions the appearance of casseroles after a death, but these stop after about two weeks. There are the well-planned student suicides e.g. Bryn was only child school captain, and how schools never knew how to help other students deal with death. How do you teach people to manage grief?
In “Those who forget the past are condemned to re-------“. Concerns the horrors of a legal system which gets it wrong after a couple of grandparents “abduct” their grandson and keep him hidden. The boy had lived with them and his father since he was a baby until his father died and his estranged mother sued for custody despite grandparents wish to adopt the boy. The grandmother is so angry – not because of her early childhood trauma (hiding in a bunker in Warsaw before being sent to Auschwitz) – but because she could not protect her grandson and not honour her promise to her son. The justice system failed her and her grandson because it did not see beyond her foreignness so when her grandson finally returns to her at 21, he is already an alcoholic after years of abuse by his step-father.
In “History repeats itself” the writer’s voice is like a court reporter. She describes the work of Vanda the community lawyer whose clients face “entrenched disadvantage” – they come from the “tar pit of poverty, abuse, addiction, and mental health issues so that they are stuck the sticky parts”. She interviews Deputy chief magistrate Popovic who has come to realise that the “people who appear in front of her were…neither offenders or victims of their own circumstance but rather people at a point of crisis.” Through Vanda who understands her clients lives and attends the funerals for ex-clients she describes the “cycles of abuse, cycles of poverty, intergenerational transmission of trauma.” As many of the clients who are slipping through the system are third generation drug abusers. Vanda tries to help who she can and is very hard on herself and others who do not follow through.
In “Give me a child before the age of seven and I will show you the woman” the trauma of the survivors she describes is more blatant. Nahji Chu who became misschu a once successful entrepreneur, is a Vietnamese who escaped to Thailand via Laos and arrived in Australia when she was nine. Vera Wasowski was aged five when the Nazi’s took over Poland. She survived in Warsaw but her family members carried poison on themselves whilst in hiding. Her mother let her uncle fuck her to survive but when her father returns he kills himself and is buried in the cellar. By the late 1960s the growing “anti-Zionist campaign took care of the remnants of the Jewish intelligentsia” and there was talk of the possibility of another holocaust. Vera and her husband and mother come to Australia but Vera is different from other survivors because she still loves Poland although she realises she cannot ever return to live there because of the enduring anti-Semitism.
All of the survivors still have the inbuilt trauma ensuing from their early experiences. They learnt “to pretend that everything is ‘normal’…Learn to be quiet.”. Similarly on p168 “Survival leaves you knowing both testimony and silence as tainted choices, each riddled equally with despair.” There is also the connection of child abuse survivors in Australia such as the woman who testified at the Royal Commission but ‘nothing happened after”...”reliving the injustice of it…and for nothing”….“carried burden for such a long time”…p 180
so that there continues to be “unresolved walking trauma” -p181
In the last chapter “You can’t enter the same river twice” there is an almost ‘stream of consciousness’ as the memories of a friendship are revealed in disconnected snippets in between present-day commentary for example one on parental fears for her son when he is visiting his father. It is more disjointed and difficult to follow than the complex stories in the previous chapters.
Profile Image for Toni.
230 reviews3 followers
February 12, 2019
All the trauma

Such a challenging book but worth it. Deserving and demanding of more than one read. Tumarkin drags the reader through investigations of trauma, suicide, nature v nurture, migration (forced and voluntary) and the nature of resilience and survival. Experimental in form, this work is carefully constructed while feeling like stream of consciousness.
Profile Image for Sarah.
1,212 reviews35 followers
December 28, 2019
4.5 rounded down

One of those books I want to force into the hands of friends and make them read it immediately so I can discuss it with them. When I wasn't reading this I was thinking about it - trying to find connections between the five sections (which I'd describe as long-form essays) and contemplating the nature of what motivates us to act (and react) to our situations, emotions and circumstances differently, human to human. The last section let it down a tiny bit for me - mostly because I didn't really follow what Tumarkin was trying to say - and I'd venture that I'd likely get even more out of this on a re-read. Highly recommended regardless!
Profile Image for Alice Brandli.
56 reviews
August 20, 2018
This is first class non-fiction. Maria writes succinctly about the state of the Australian justice system, suicide, intergenerational trauma and the nature of responsibility. Yes, these are miserable topics. Yet her writing is so well thought out and careful to discuss the nuances and devastating effects of trauma. She writes about the experiences of other people, it’s well researched, persuasive and delicately crafted.
Profile Image for Lee Kofman.
Author 8 books116 followers
September 26, 2018
I loved the structure and the poetry of this book, and how organically it handles the research material; it's such an original work. The last two chapters were just magnificent, I literally couldn't do anything else, had to read them in one go. Maria didn’t try to make it easy for her readers in this work and I admire her for that.
Profile Image for Katarina.
106 reviews1 follower
November 30, 2019
This book dissolved me. The themes in this book are hard but it wasn't just that - Maria Tumarkin writes and thinks in such a beautiful, self-conscious way; the words sometimes feel like they're tumbling artlessly out of her mouth, sentences sometimes lack the punctuation I might expect, it feels mid-conversation; and yet you know that this book took many years of reflection and re-reflection.
Profile Image for Adrian Alvarez.
494 reviews37 followers
January 27, 2020
It has taken me longer to write a review of this collection of essays than it took to read them. Tumarkin creates an emotional throughline that is compelling all while building a devastating point, summed perfectly by something an old prof of mine used to say, "All loss... it's all loss."

Take this passage, from History Repeats Itself:

"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. They were not loved or not loved enough. Lost someone, witnessed something, got into drugs or drink early, missed having their mental illness diagnosed, all of it, none of this. A harder question is can the feeling your life's worth shit be fixed, whether from the outside 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. I do not mean the needs they take aim at sit at the bottom of Maslow's pyramid (let's blow up the dumb pyramid). I mean the feeling's impervious to being messed with, it is too deep and diffused, a mystery even to its host, it is precognitive, it is metaphysical, both. And when the feeling is there it skews the survival instinct, instills that take-it-or-leave-it sense. Force of gravity's just too weak to pull you in. To keep you in. People, plans, debts, windfalls. Intangible stuff that holds you in - just not strong enough to stop you giving it away. 'The weightlessness of giving up.' I came across this expression in Kristina Olsson's Boy, Lost." - pg 108

As the collection's title suggests, Tumarkin's project takes aim at the self-evident truths we derive from history and reform and our relationship to progress and, of course, trauma. The profound dialectics each essay is structured with create both a fascinating prose style and a fit form for each argument, which tends to arrive at conclusions not dissimilar to the state of a sweater when you pull on a thread to investigate where it ends - a clump of thread and no sweater. It is disorienting and with each essay I was left with feelings of anxiety, depression, and grief. Oh joy! So yes, not exactly book you get in the mood for but at the same time, living in the world in this age had me primed for a good devastation.

I highly recommend this to anyone struggling both with the mechanics of essay writing (these will jolt you out of any funk) and for any reader who struggles, or wants to struggle, with a crisis of meaning in our post-recovery movement era.
Profile Image for Sarah.
Author 11 books332 followers
February 13, 2021
An interesting, moving and worthwhile book, mostly about trauma. I particularly liked the first section about suicide among young people, which was moving and illuminating; and the second section about the grandmother--a holocaust survivor--who kidnaps her grandson and hides him in a walled off part of the house. The other three sections were also good, but had less coherence. Sometimes I'd forget what the focus of the section was and have to go back a few pages and regain the thread. This could be my attention span.
Tumarkin is a good writer and erudite (in a good way). I wasn't familiar with her before reading this, yet in her writing I had the feeling she presumed the reader was familiar with her, perhaps because her books are well known in Australia. I don't know!
Profile Image for Bert.
481 reviews57 followers
October 30, 2020
This was not fun reading.
But how enjoyable it was.
Felt I did not sit comfy enough in my reading chair.
Sank a bit lower.
Ow, not too low please.
Won't let my back hurt.
After all you're never sure if time would heal all pain.
... it might.
Or we might not change at all.

Not a fun thought,
but slightly enjoyable.
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