2019 Stella Prize, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Brow Books, essays, Literary prizes, Maria Tumarkin, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Axiomatic’ by Maria Tumarkin

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Brow Books; 244 pages; 2018.

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. (You can read that full interview here.)

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.

‘There is chronological time,’ Valent tells me, ‘and there is experiential, cyclical time. This time has an emotional meaning. Existential. It is like the way peasants think about harvest: time to reap and time to sow. Time to live and time to die.’

But she looks at very dark and disturbing subjects to do this — from secondary school students who commit suicide in the brilliant opening chapter, which is one of the most thought-provoking pieces I’ve read in a long while, to a child holocaust survivor accused of abducting her grandson and hiding him in a makeshift dungeon, which reads like something that fell out of a literary crime novel — and always with a keen eye on intergenerational trauma, the moral necessity of protecting children, love, grief and survival.

This is the story sentenced to constant retelling, about how people are born into things, and fate thinks intergenerationally. Parental pain, sadness, abuse (be it suffered or inflicted), indifference, withheld love, riding and exploding over children’s lives, like tanks.

All the while Tumarkin writes in gleaming, silky prose, using a mix of short sentences and longer ones, creating a rhythm that is both hypnotic and alluring. In all cases, she inserts herself in the story, and while she’s clearly her own person, with her own style and her own voice, there are echoes of Janet Malcolm and Helen Garner in her work.

Axiomatic is the kind of book that deserves a wide audience, not only because it deals with challenging subjects in a thoughtful, considered and wholly original way, but also because it is a timely reminder of our own humanity and our own resilience. This is a five-star read for me.

This is my 7th book for #AWW2019  and my 6th for the 2019 Stella Prize shortlist. This one is currently available as an ebook in the UK.

2019 Stella Prize, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Brow Books, Fiction, Jamie Marina Lau, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting

‘Pink Mountain on Locust Island’ by Jamie Marina Lau

Fiction – Kindle edition; Brow Books; 190 pages; 2018.

Jamie Marina Lau’s debut novel Pink Mountain on Lotus Island has been shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize. The judges claim that “this book is like nothing you have ever read before — a kaleidoscope of colours, smells and fragments of life observed by a teenager in a Chinatown somewhere in an unknown city”.

In my case, they are only partly right: I *have* read books like this before, because there is nothing new under the sun and all literature is in some ways influenced by all that has gone before.

Lau’s story of a troubled lonely teen living with a drug-addicted father has echoes of other novels in it — J. D. Salinger’s 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye, for instance, or, more recently, Katherine Faw Morris’s Young God. This, I hasten to add, is not a criticism of the book, just an observation.

A novel of vignettes

Told in a fragmentary style structured around a series of short vignettes — most chapters are no more than two pages long, some contain just a single sentence — the story is about 15-year-old Monk navigating the world largely on her own. Her mother has fled to Shanghai and her father, a washed-up artist, spends his time zoned out on Xanax and alcohol, lying on the couch in front of the TV.

When she introduces her father to Santa Coy, a 19-year-old artist she has befriended, the pair hit it off to the point of excluding Monk. Little does she know they’re passing off Santa’s paintings as her father’s, which will lead, eventually, to a violent reckoning.

Meanwhile Monk, free to do her own thing, gets drawn into a dangerous world of pimps, drug addicts and wild parties. Her naivety is alarming, but not even her well-meaning Aunt can keep her under control.

Admittedly, the chopped-up nature of the story makes it a fast-paced gallop of a read, but I had some issues with it.

What I didn’t like

Some of the writing feels over-worked to the point of being completely nonsensical.

We sit on top of the Commodore and pretend the heatwaves are different types of canine growls.

And:

Just standing in the middle of an orgy of paints and other people’s false brains.

There’s an over-reliance on mentioning people’s mouths, lips, smiles and grins. Once I noticed these constant references I couldn’t help continuing to notice them: they are everywhere — in fact, the word mouth is used 24 times and lips are mentioned 40 times! (The tally for smiles is 19, grins 16.)

  • “pulps his lips until it’s a smile.”
  • “His mouth is a tilted line.”
  • “He smiles with teeth”
  • “mad grins, shallow smirks.”

And finally, some of the editing is a bit messy. Every good editor should know you don’t need a hyphen to describe a “nearly-empty burger” because the “ly” does the job of the hyphen.

Another example of bad editing is the missing comma in the following sentence, which makes it sound like Monk is drinking soda AND batteries:

I’m on my computer, drinking fizzy orange soda and batteries do nothing if you put them in the refrigerator.

And the following doozy, which sounds like Monk’s boobs are about to walk out the door!

My boob top has been tugged down so that I’m popped out on one side and I lie on my stomach until they’ve both gone out the door.

What I did like

Much of the writing is clever and highly original. It makes you sit up and take notice. Her similes, of which there are many, are very good. Here is a selection I highlighted because I thought they were imaginative and unique:

  • “There are canvases everywhere, leaning up against each other, looking like shanties from disaster city.”
  • “The printing machines erupting like cramps.”
  • “I am waving my legs in the air like windshield wipers.”
  • “There are no more canvases in the apartment, only sudokus like leftover hieroglyphics.”

There’s a good sense of humour at work here, too. There’s a laugh-out loud scene where Monk’s dad drops her off at school:

My dad pulls up to the curb. Hurry up, he says. It’s no standing here. He throws himself across the passenger seat and opens the door for me. It dents into the pavement. It’s stuck I tell him, looping the sack around my body. Then get it out! It’s no standing here. It’s a tug of war between the pavement and my underarms. The door making scraping noises. He warns me: don’t break the car. I pull in smaller tugs. He tells me: hurry up, this is no standing. I tell him: maybe drive forward a little. Not with half your body and legs hanging out of the car, I won’t. Pull your legs in, hurry up, this is no standing. I hold my sack tight. This is like a constable’s arrest. The bottom of the door snaps off like a biscuit.

And this scene, in which Monk criticises Santa Coy’s choice of clothing, had me laugh out loud:

I tell him he isn’t on a catwalk in 1994 of the spring season DNKY, you can’t dress like this. His facial expression jumps, wow. He crosses his arms, raising his brows. He asks me, you into fashion? I tell him yes, as a matter of fact fashion is my whole life. His face is a giant ticking smirk. He says: then you’ll know it’s pronounced D.K.N.Y., not ‘dinky’, dinky.

Pink Mountain on Lotus Island is an innovative, unexpected and sometimes surprising novel, but I wasn’t completely convinced by it. That said, the author is only 21, so this definitely marks her as a young talent to watch.

This is my 4th book for #AWW2019 and my 3rd for the 2019 Stella Prize shortlist. This one is available as an eBook in the UK, though expect to pay a hefty price for the paperback edition.