Like a lot of Australian millennials, I grew up on Magda Szubanski’s comedy. I remember laughing out loud at her poor sad-sack character Sharon Strzelecki on Kath & Kim, I remember seething with jealousy when she made out with Heath Ledger on the red carpet, and then – most relevant to this review of her memoir – I remember watching in awe as she came out on live television in 2012. But despite all those years of watching, laughing, and cheering her along, it turns out I knew very little about Szubanski, as I learned when I read her memoir Reckoning.

Reckoning - Magda Szubanski - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get Reckoning here.
(And I reckon you’re a superstar if you use an affiliate link on this page to make a purchase, supporting these reviews.)

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Szubanski, here’s a quick run-down. She’s an Australian comedian, actress, advocate and (now) author, known for her comic characters and iconic roles like Esme Hoggett in Babe. In 2003 and 2004, surveys found that she was the most-recognised and well-liked Australian television personality. I doubt that many of those surveyed knew what they were getting with her 2015 memoir, Reckoning – I sure didn’t!

It has a killer opening line for starters – literally! “If you had met my father,” Szubanski writes on page one, “you would never, not for an instant, have thought he was an assassin.”

After a brief introduction to her father’s former profession, Szubanski takes us back to her childhood. She was born in England, to a Scottish-Irish mother and Polish father, immigrating to Australia as a child as her family searched for stable lives in sunnier climes. But, as she quickly reveals in Reckoning, moving to the bottom of the earth wasn’t far enough for her father to escape the ghosts of his past.

Szubanski Senior had been an assassin in the counter-intelligence branch of the Polish resistance movement during WWII. Szubanski grew up in the shadows of her father’s war-time violence, and his struggle to reconcile his traumatic past with his safe present. Her adolescence in particular got pretty dark, as she struggled to gain the approval of her mercurial patriarch while secretly coming to terms with her own sexuality (neither of which she truly achieved until decades later). In many ways, Reckoning is a memoir about a dual reckoning, happening simultaneously: with his past, and with her identity.

So, if you pick up Reckoning expecting your standard, relatively light-hearted, comedian memoir… yeah, you’re in for a rude shock. It’s a pensive, penetrating story, told without pretension and with radical vulnerability. Szubanski doesn’t shy away from sharing the least flattering aspects of her own past, personality or behaviour, nor does she redact her father’s historical violence.

Szubanski was widely lauded and acclaimed for her story, with Reckoning winning the Douglas Stuart Prize for Non Fiction, the ABIA Book Of The Year and Biography Of The Year, and the non-fiction prize for the New South Wales Premier’s Awards. Richard Ferguson, in a review for The Sydney Morning Herald, said: “This is documentary writing of the highest order and Szubanski has given life to an incredible war story… Reckoning [is a] tale of war and suburbia, sexuality and comedy.”

As far as I’m concerned, Reckoning offers compelling evidence for the theory of inherited trauma, even that which is unspoken in families affected. My only real criticism of the book is that I really could’ve done with a touch more of the brevity for which Szubanski is so beloved, just to break up the heart-wrenching hard truths of her life. That said, I understand why she didn’t write this book as A Comedian, writing instead from the heart of a daughter who loves her complicated father. While it didn’t offer ‘comic’ relief exactly, finishing the book on the high note of coming out in support of Australia’s marriage equality campaign ensured I closed the final chapter with a smile on my face.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Reckoning:

  • “Too self indulgent, storyline very moving but too much on being a lesbian. I love lesbians but not being one it seems I don’t understand how hard it is to come out.” – Patricia Eastley
  • “With warmth courage and honesty, with her pants full, it was not easy but it was worth it.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Magda seemed to spend a lot of time being depressed and writing about it.” – susan rickert
  • “I am enjoying it overall but am uncomfortable with the details regarding her sexuality. I am not convinced she is a lesbian.” – Amazon Customer