This also is a story touched by sadness and loss, but only touched. It is a life ultimately overwhelmed by constant, fortuitous achievement. In the early years our hero can barely put a foot wrong: sought after, lauded, tumbling blithely towards success.
The book begins at a clip and with a tone of candid cheeriness. Life sweeps Turnbull up. He’s an actual bastard apparently, a detail confided by page six. He is at Sydney University by page 23, writing for the deliciously counter-cultural Nation Review on page 24 and dining with Kerry Packer by page 28.
All of this before arriving in Oxford on page 30 and almost being poached to journalism from the law by none other than that legend of letters, Harold Evans, on page 31. He meets Lucy Hughes, then 19, on page 34, and the pattern of a life propelled by constant good fortune seems set.
Bar one thing of course, and we backtrack here to an earlier and uncharacteristic moment of passing shadow when at eight he is sent to boarding school, where life is a misery of bullying, bed-wetting and heart-rending letters home. The fabric of the boy’s young life will tear a little more. By the time he’s 10, Turnbull’s writer mother, Coral Lansbury, will have left the country, her marriage and her son.
The relationship with his father, Bruce, would turn out to be a strong one in Coral’s absence, one Turnbull describes as brotherly — ‘‘Until I met Lucy, Bruce was the closest person to me in the world’’— and one that ended with cruel violence in 1982, with Bruce Turnbull killed in a light-plane crash at the age of 56.
Turnbull’s father is never mentioned after his passing on page 44. ‘‘The week before Bruce was killed, Kerry Packer had asked me to leave the Bar to work for him and manage all his legal affairs …’’ and so, life rattles on. His mother also vanishes from the page and the reader is left to wonder at the emotional impact through this otherwise fortunate life of that combined absence.
In a book of such detail it’s an omission that either suggests a coyness in the writing, or perhaps a lack of emotional insight from the writer. Or, more intriguingly, a displacement on the page that might mirror a displacement in life: eviscerating loss masked by a relentless and constantly forging ambition.
Turnbull rides on: from the law, to Packer, to a vastly lucrative stint in merchant banking, from the failed campaign for a republic, to branch stacking his way to pre-selection for the Sydney seat of Wentworth.
The counterpoint to Turnbull’s possible emotional reluctance is his unquestioning, loving ebullience for wife Lucy, and the frankness over the pit of despondency that claimed him after first losing the Liberal leadership to Tony Abbott.
‘‘For the first time in my life, suicidal thoughts started to enter my mind, unbidden and unwanted … My family could see all this and were horrified.’’
As the book draws closer to the upper echelons of politics, the tempo of the writing shifts: from a clipped, lively economy, to sometimes bluntly pointed, and highly detailed, description. Time seems to expand from the book’s third part — ‘‘Parliament (2004-13)’’ — eventually entering a long time-lapse sequence for part five ‘‘Turnbull Government (2015-18)’’ three years of Turnbull’s 65 that fill 388 of the book’s 655 pages. It’s like a hectic movie fight sequence that ends with a long, slow-motion, airborne kick.
The language changes too. There are blunt character assessments. Tony Abbott: ‘‘He was crazy,’’. Christopher Pyne: ‘‘…the soul of indiscretion.’’ Mathias Cormann’s ‘‘… treachery was the worst and the most hurtful’’. Scott Morrison, ‘‘a Machiavellian plotter’’.
In his descriptions of policy and politics Turnbull has unflinching faith in the rightness of his own prescriptions. He was a man, however, thwarted by elements of his party who failed to share his vision. ‘‘Nothing is so important as character,’’ he concludes, though his critics might argue that when his own character was tested, he was craven when he might have taken charge. Turnbull, to the contrary, casts his government as one of substantial if frustrated achievement.
But then he has a right to his view. This is not history, this is autobiography; not the definitive version, but a voice that, one day, will add to it.
Jonathan Green is editor of Meanjin and the author of The Year My Politics Broke (MUP).