Magda Szubanski, Reckoning: A Memoir (Text 2015; Bolinda audiobook read by Magda Szubanski)
Tim Winton, Island Home: A Landscape Memoir (Hamish Hamilton 2015; Bolinda audiobook read by David Tredinnick)
Magda Szubanski, a superb comedian as the fat, unloved but ever optimistic Karen in Kath and Kim, and the bustling farmer’s wife in Babe, here comes out as a complex, thoughtful person with quite a lot to say and the ability to say it well. I particularly admire her way with similes. As you’d expect of a celebrity memoir, it gives us the background story on a number of her well-known and much-loved parts, as well as her more obscure commercial and critical failures. Unsurprisingly, it goes into her family history, but though there are elements of celebrity-misery-memoir in the story that emerges of a depressed mother and a rigid, disciplinarian father, the narrative transcends that category to become something much more interesting.
There are many strands. Possibly the most interesting is Magda’s quest to understand her father. She tells us at the start that he was a teenaged assassin, an ally to Jews who put his own life at risk, and a member of the Polish resistance during World War Two. A key element of her own life story is her gradual uncovering of the details and significance of that, and of its implications for how he related to his own children. There’s also her struggle with weight, and the agonising story of her coming to terms with her sexuality, of coming out to her family, and then to the world is a revelation. (That is to say, I vaguely remember that when she came out my response was something like, ‘That’s interesting – Oh look, something shiny!’ For her, it was a major decision: she had to face the possibility that her career and any number of important relationships would go down the drain, and she also had to face head-on the internalised version of the vicious oppression that comes at Lesbians and Gay men.)
Magda Szubanski reads this audio book, and I recommend this as a way of receiving it. Perhaps it would be funnier read on the page: there’s plenty of wit, but Szubanskidoesn’t play for laughs. She does, however, do the voices: her father’s Polish accent (‘Ach, Maggie’), mother’s soft Scottish burr, her own childhood pipe, and any number of show-biz types (her impression of Mark Trevorrow is uncanny).
When we’d finished Magda’s book, we moved on to Tim Winton’s Island Home. Sadly, we lasted only about 40 minutes into it, and even that was a struggle. The book itself is interesting. Winton writes about the meaning of the land in Australian sensibilities: we have more geography than culture here, he says; the long Aboriginal custodianship of the land has had a very different impact from the ubiquitous naming and taming of Europe, and the last two centuries have not erased that.
The book is interesting, and I hope to read it some time. But my companion and I found David Tredinnick’s reading intolerable. He did that thing of not trusting the words to do the work, but injecting emotion and significant intonations. The effect was to constantly draw attention to the words rather than to what they were trying to say. You could tell that Winton was struggling to articulate something, but it was being read to us as pronouncements of wisdom from on high. I see from Bolinda’s site that David Tredinnick is a frequent reader for them. I hope this performance isn’t typical.
Reckoning is the twentieth book I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.