Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin

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 seven and I’ll give you the woman… You can’t enter the same river twice…

The sayings might be familiar but everything Maria Tumarkin does in Axiomatic to explore them, is not. In five loosely linked chapters, Turmarkin uses stories about suicide, a child’s kidnapping, Holocaust survival, crime, and past relationships to challenge our understanding of these well-worn axioms. 

A number of themes thread through the five chapters – our understanding of history; what we reveal and what we keep hidden; intergenerational trauma; and the ripple effect, applied to both emotions and events. Although the chapters could be read as stand alone essays, the book as a whole gives you a necessarily complex interpretation of ‘history’.

Two chapters stood out. The first, Time Heals All Wounds, focused on the suicide of a sibling. I have read many memoirs about suicide however this piece by Tumarkin is remarkable, putting words around grief and disbelief in a way that is unexpected, raw and deeply affecting.

…when talking about suicide takes in culture, chemistry, disease, meaning, soul – ‘Conversation about suicide becomes almost unmanageable’… Mental health is people’s way of holding the conversation down like an animal.

Particularly interesting was Tumarkin’s reflections on how suicide is managed by schools, and how this has evolved over time. She notes that a school is like a family, and a suicide damages it irrevocably, leaving teachers and students wondering what they ‘missed’, what they should have done, what they didn’t do.

And re how grief was to be managed, let’s see: channelled into a renewed understanding of the preciousness of human life. Countered by school routines. Given validation but no room to expand or to assert its non-transience. Counselling – yes. Flags at half mast, shrines, special concerts, photos of the dead student stuck on walls – no.

The second chapter, Those Who Forget the Past Are Condemned to Repeat It, tells the story of a woman who kidnaps her grandson and hides him in a secret dungeon. It sounds the stuff of horror stories we hear on the nightly news however there is more to this – the woman’s son (the boy’s father) is dead, his mother is in an abusive relationship and has not had custody of the child for many years; and the woman is a Holocaust survivor, who spent many years ‘staying safe’, hidden in a cellar, while her own mother ‘paid’ for the privilege with her body.

Of her grandson (who was returned to live with his mother) –

She pulls out a photograph. ‘Look at his eyes. He came back to us at twenty-one. Already an alcoholic. He went through such things. Didn’t tell me most things…’
If it is in any sense about her, it is about her not honouring a promise to her son to protect his child and keep together what is left of the family.
After what her mother did to protect her.

Again, Tumarkin turns the theme of intergenerational trauma on its head, as well as delving into how we care for children.

Can you see what she is saying? – do not use the horrors of my childhood to cancel out what happened to my grandson, do not use my trauma to cover up the vast compounded injustice that smashed my family. Here, in this country. Don’t use my tragedy to mask your moral failure.

I allowed myself some thinking time between each chapter. Tumarkin’s writing is dense (in a rich rather than impenetrable sense) and she doesn’t offer answers or resolution, so the stories that she has used to carefully explore each axiom, linger. More importantly, the stories challenge what we expect, or what we think we understand – Tumarkin gets away with it because of the care she takes in showing us the people she writes about. And their stories are unforgettable.

4/5 Thought-provoking.

4 responses

  1. Pingback: Stella Prize 2019 – my prediction | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  2. This is a great review, Kate. You have brought it together as a whole much better than I did. It’s a wonderful book. I’m still struggling to understand why some find it “nihilistic”.

    • Thanks Sue but I felt I hardly did it justice.
      I think there’s comfort for some in ‘universal truths’ but for others the opposite, if they don’t identify with a commonly accepted ‘truth’. Tumarkin isn’t afraid to challenge those truths and offer a perspective that most will empathise with (which is why I found the story of the grandmother and kidnapped child so powerful and interesting).

      • Yes, that was a great story that showed that “the law is an ass” I thought. Complete inability of the justice system to be nuanced about what it does. You understand how and why it happens but still…

        I just found the whole really humane.

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