‘Reckoning’ by Magda Szubanski


2015, 371 pages

I wonder if some of the very positive response to this book springs from a sense of surprise that such a familiar comedian could take us to such varied and dark places.  This is not your usual celebrity memoir. Instead it is Magda Szubanski’s story of second-generation survivor guilt and  the proclamation of her homosexuality, alongside a social history of suburban Melbourne life and the comedy scene in Australia during the last decades of the twentieth century and the first decades of the twenty-first.

Magda Szubanski, for those who may not know her – and indeed, most Australians DO know her- is a much-loved comedian who has starred as everyone’s “second-best friend” in Kath and Kim, and as Esme Hoggett in the 1995 move Babe.  Like most other female comedians in the country, she’s done her stint on ABC productions like ‘Big Girls Blouse’ and Working Dog productions for the ABC.  She’s smiling out at us at every supermarket in the country this month from the front of the Women’s Weekly. But the photograph on the front of this book is more tremulous- she looks resigned and on the verge of tears, even- and it’s not just a story of stardom.

Her opening pages mark out the theme by which she has shaped her story

If you had met my father you would never, not for an instant, have thought he was an assassin….He was born in 1924. He was a boy of fifteen when Hitler invaded his homeland and the war began, and as soon as he was able he joined the fighting.  All through our growing up he would say, ‘I was judge, jury and executioner.’  And I could never imagine- cannot imagine even now- what it feels like to have that responsibility, that guilt. ..He spent the rest of his life trying to come to terms with what he had done.  I grew up in the shadow of that reckoning.” (p.1-2)

If they are to be something more than a recitation of dates and events, memoirs need an overarching narrative shape to give some sense of tension or contingency to the story.The question of what her father had actually done as a teenager assassin the Polish Resistance  is the thread that draws the reader through this story, as well as a count-down to her coming-out to her family and the wider public. I must confess a shifting discomfort with the child exposing her parent like this.  I felt it with Biff Ward’s memoir, and with the recent documentary The Silences  that I’ve reviewed previously. Yes, I can understand that in understanding yourself, you search to understand the emotional influences on your life, most particularly through your parents.  Yes, I can understand the craving to put emotional meat on the bones of a family tree.  Yes, I do think that there can be a mixture of love and condemnation in such attempts. But then I think of the way that we all hold ourselves together with a mixture of pride, shame, self-delusion, elision and half-remembered, often-retold and rehearsed stories. There’s a shared dignity in the act of fashioning our construction of ourselves because we all do it. It discomfits me that children are given carte blanche to unpick it, (often as part of their own construction of themselves)  and then broadcast it to the world. Or is this just my own old-fashioned and idiosyncratic holding on to a privacy that we no longer seem to have?

Quite apart from this larger historical/biographical mystery, Szubanski draws a good picture of the tensions of the  father-daughter relationship, where the daughter feels that she’s not quite good enough. This is the relationship that defines where she feels she fits in her family, even though in many ways her sister and mother were the supports that held her up.  The book is a good depiction of suburbia and adolescence, of coming-of-age and coming-out, threaded through with family history explorations.

I enjoyed reading this book and happily took it up night after night.  I did feel less satisfied coming back to the last quarter or so of the book after a few days away, and I don’t know if it was me or the book.  That said, I think that it would have been wrong for it to have won the National Biography Award, for which it was shortlisted (the award was given to Brenda Niall’s Mannix).  Conflating memoir and biography as an awards category is a fraught exercise, and although there are commonalities between the two, there are important differences as well. Taken on its own terms, Reckoning is engagingly written, honest and human but somehow I think that those are just as much the qualities of the author, as much as of the work.

aww2016 Posted in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016.



7 responses to “‘Reckoning’ by Magda Szubanski

  1. Yes, I feel the same way about these memoirs that hang out the dirty washing. I think it’s bad form.

  2. Wouldn’t her parents now be dead? I think it is ok for it be a free for all about family once they have died. Just reading about what you have copied about her father is fascinating to me. We will never understand what is happening in our world now if we don’t get some sort of understanding of Hitler and WWII, that is what drives people to kill and torture.

    ‘But then I think of the way that we all hold ourselves together with a mixture of pride, shame, self-delusion, elision and half-remembered, often-retold and rehearsed stories.’ So true.

    • He died in 2006, but her mother is still alive. I think that her mother would certainly have seen this more it was published.

  3. Yes, my comment was going to be the same as Andrew’s, i.e. that I thought he was dead and that I think it is OK be to be more open after the person’s death. (I hope she discussed it with her mother.) I must say though that books like Biff Ward’s (and perhaps this but I haven’t read it) bother me way less than Jill Ker Conway’s Road to Coorain. This is because I felt Biff Ward’s love and ability to empathise with her father, whereas Conway, to me, showed no willingness to understand her mother and why she may have been how she was. Exposure without love and empathy is the one I find hard (unless it’s clear to me that there’s absolutely nothing there to love or empathise with. On a human level, though, there usually is something you can look to to explain and understand.)

  4. Thank you for this intelligent and balanced review of a book I finished yesterday. When you said …..” Or is this just my own old-fashioned and idiosyncratic holding on to a privacy that we no longer seem to have?, I had to cheer. With the recent publication of Modern Love: The Lives of John & Sunday Reed, I felt discomfort with this ‘revelation’ approach to peoples lives.

    I enjoyed reading Magda’s story, and was surprised at how well it was written and how thoughtful it was most of the time. I did not expect this of autobiographical writing of an entertainer.

  5. Pingback: ‘Her Mother’s Daughter’ by Nadia Wheatley | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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