October 2023

Arts & Letters

An open heart: Robyn Davidson’s ‘Unfinished Woman’

By Kerryn Goldsworthy

Robyn Davidson in Ghanerao, Rajasthan, circa 1990. Image courtesy Bloomsbury Publishing

The author of ‘Tracks’ takes stock in middle age, in a memoir encompassing her mother’s tragic early death, mental health, and her relationship with Salman Rushdie

“I’m working on this infinite book,” said Robyn Davidson in a 2012 interview, “a memoir based loosely around my mother … It’s quite a difficult book. I started it 12 years ago. I feel absolutely that I have to write it and absolutely that I can’t write it.”

The “infinite book” was Unfinished Woman. Within its pages, Davidson says she began the writing of it even earlier than that. “I had reached the age at which she died, and it was as if she had been waiting beneath the cement, to crack it open.” Davidson’s mother died at the age of 46, which would mean that her daughter has been working on this memoir for more than 25 years. The “cement” is a layer of oblivion over memories of her mother, who died when Davidson was only 11, and she gets the cause of death and the core of the book out of the way in its opening pages:

My mother hanged herself from the rafters of our garage, using the cord of our electric kettle.

            Where can I go with a sentence like that? How do I unfurl the story of her life … without descending into melodrama?

Rumours of a mysterious “camel lady” crossing the Gibson Desert alone, travelling west from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean with four camels and a dog, had begun to waft and burgeon in Australia over the second half of 1977. They were confirmed when the May 1978 issue of National Geographic featured an essay by the 28-year-old Davidson describing the trip, illustrated by Rick Smolan’s astonishing photographs. It made her internationally known, and London publishers Jonathan Cape offered her a book deal to write in more detail about her adventure. The result was Tracks (1980), which she wrote while living in London; she gave the manuscript to Doris Lessing, who had befriended her and lately become her landlady. “After she’d read it, she came down the stairs to see me, manuscript in hand. ‘Well, Robbie,’ she said, in a rather severe tone (my stomach fell to the floor), ‘it seems you have written a classic.’”

Davidson says she hadn’t previously thought of herself as “a writer” and there is little or nothing in her life to that point, at least as she describes it, that might suggest she would see that as part of her identity. Any bent towards the life of art was all in the direction of music, from an early age; a surprising amount of this memoir is about music, which she associates with her mother. A possible future as a professional musician, for which she seems to have had sufficient talent, was scuppered at 19. “I did not have the staying power, dedication or temperament of a performer.” But the success of Tracks had consequences that many people in the literary world will recognise: “… if you write one book that sells mega copies, it is taken for granted that you will write another, whether or not you have anything to say”.

And she did: she wrote the novel Ancestors (1989), which got mixed reviews and which she herself cavalierly dismisses here. “It was a bad novel, and there is nothing more demoralising than publishing a book you already know should be put away permanently in a drawer.” Subsequent books included the collection of essays Travelling Light (1993); Desert Places (1996), about travelling with the nomadic Ribari people of north-western India; and her 2006 Quarterly Essay No Fixed Address, about the disappearance of nomadic cultures in the face of globalism and its changing geopolitics. But Unfinished Woman is the book she has been working on for 25 years, since she was in her mid 40s.

Women take stock when we are in our 40s, because we must, and one of the most engaging and intriguing aspects of this book is the way that Davidson keeps circling around this time in her life. As she approaches the age her mother was when she died, Davidson’s growing awareness of loss and her ever-expanding stock of long-forgotten but newly reawakening memories starts either to crowd out other aspects of her life, or, sometimes, to help explain them.

For example, the end of her explosive and much-gossiped-about love affair with Salman Rushdie in her mid 30s makes her feel as if something even deeper is going on: “… the devastation was too enormous to be the result of abandonment by a lover. This had to be what had lain beneath the callus all those years – the long-delayed shock of a more essential loss.” And when she buys a century-old Blüthner grand piano, something unexpected happens:

I was in my forties then, and at that time, I would say, I had few memories of my childhood, almost none of my mother … If I thought about it at all. I imagined my earlier life as lying under a thick layer of cement … There was something moving beneath the cement. I would sit down in front of the keys, begin to play, but be interrupted by the smell of beeswax and dust, or hear, in my mind, my mother’s voice singing …

The piecemeal remembrance of things long past is carefully and skilfully managed. Davidson takes us through the various stages of her life in chronological order, from birth to the present, but with regular interruptions of that timeline when an act of memory in this treacherous stretch of middle age is followed by an account of that memory as though it were happening in the present. So, sitting down at the piano in her 40s makes “songs come back to me”, and that passage is followed by emerging memories of childhood: of marching into the classroom to the tune of “Colonel Bogey”, or dancing to “Roll Out the Barrel” and “Hokey Pokey”. A piano – any piano – as a trigger for both memory and sadness, often together, is a recurrent motif.

Narrative chronology does seem to have been one aspect of writing this book that had initially defeated her, for Unfinished Woman is not only about mothers and memory but also about the act of writing itself. Davidson struggled with its writing because much of the material itself was traumatic and painful, and because of her awareness of its technical aspects and problems, chief among them chronological structure: how to write coherently about random acts of memory?

She describes this sort of problem in clear and sometimes quite beautiful metaphors to which she has given much thought. “Songs came back to me,” she writes of the first stirrings of memory, “and it was as if the songs cast light onto a dark background, so that I could begin to make out what lay there. Pale light blooming then disappearing.” When she first begins to write her recollections down, she says, those early attempts don’t work at all. “Everything I wrote was like debris in a centrifuge, at the core of which, exerting all the power, [was] that purely mathematical point, my imaginary mother.”

With the lightest possible touch, Davidson makes it briefly clear that her mother suffered from severe clinical depression for some years before her death; the breakdown of her own mental health in her 40s, culminating in physical collapse while driving alone across Ireland, is something she sees as perhaps all too predictable. She describes it in frightening detail and has more questions than answers, but there’s one thing she seems sure of: “What I do know is that the breakdown was the portal through which my mother returned to me, not as a person (that person is forever beyond reach), but as something to be acknowledged. To be brought forth. To be honoured.”

There is much else to take in and ponder over. Davidson’s father and her two great loves figure largely in her attempts to bring the filaments of her life into alignment. The account of her sometimes ramshackle teenage years and young womanhood can be quite startling, and makes the reader fear for her more than once. On the subject of her relationship with Rushdie she neither gushes nor dwells, but nonetheless manages to convey its profound and devastating human significance, “one of those spiritually costly passions that rips away pride, common sense, intelligence”. Though the relationship was public knowledge, the fact that she doesn’t even name him makes him seem, beyond gossip and time, just that much more like a force of nature. “Through him I touched something mythical and primal, outside of individuality.”

Davidson’s has been an operatic life, punctuated by dramas of love and death, populated with colourful characters and backed by exotic scenery. Insights from both Western psychology and Eastern mysticism sit lightly among her reflections on how we live our lives and why we do what we do, and there is no sense of conflict or stress between these two ways of seeing. She seems as porous and open to ideas as she is to experience.

I loved reading this book. There are several reasons, including the skill with which Davidson has structured and arranged her material, the depth-charge nature of so much of her life experience as it is recorded here, and the sheer pleasure there is in observing the workings of a mind so fearless and curious. But most of all, and most subjective of all, there is the evocation of a particular kind of childhood and youth, with its shock and joy of recognition. Any Australian woman born within a few years of Davidson’s own birth year, 1950, will know exactly what I mean: by the time the reader gets to page 10, she will already have encountered a blue plastic lunchbox, a pleated tartan skirt, a shark net, a rope petticoat, an outside lavatory and a Kooka wood stove.

Davidson’s memories of young womanhood in the late ’60s are even more uncannily familiar:

Being female at that time was painful and exhilarating … what an ancient burden had to be dismantled. How many archetypes had to be reconfigured. And how would men – who, after all, we loved – be induced to relinquish their dominance. The powerful do not return power without a struggle. To complicate matters, men who called themselves feminists at that time were often a bit, well, drippy.

The accretion of material detail, which in the course of the book develops the extent and complexity of a growing coral reef, evokes that familiar 1950s girl-childhood like nothing else I have ever read. I imagine that contemporaries of Hal Porter felt the same way on first reading The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony, which covers the period 1911–29, or those of Barbara Hanrahan as they read The Scent of Eucalyptus, set largely in the 1940s: these are my two touchstones for Australian memoirs of childhood, with mothers well to the fore. But in Unfinished Woman there is more to this densely textured materiality even than that: familiar objects become windows onto memories hitherto repressed or forgotten.

There are other books that this one recalls. For some reason, the first half of the 1990s in Australia produced a couple of memorable “mother memoirs”: Drusilla Modjeska’s Poppy was published in 1990, followed in 1994 by Robert Dessaix’s A Mother’s Disgrace. Like Unfinished Woman, these books were written by people who, having arrived at middle age, felt a new compulsion to go searching for the sensed mysteries in the lives of their mothers, now dead. Both books, like The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony, have been widely read and studied. Unfinished Woman is a worthy addition to that list, not only for its emotional heft, its thoughtful intelligence, and its vivid re-creations of time and place, but also for its appeal to readers in the wider context of their own lives: the essence of good memoir lies in the way it speaks with an open heart to the experience of its readers. As Dessaix puts it, “Almost nobody is interested in what I have encountered on my journey through life, but almost everybody is interested in mothers.”

 

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Kerryn Goldsworthy

Kerryn Goldsworthy is the author of Adelaide in NewSouth Books’ City series.

 

Robyn Davidson in Ghanerao, Rajasthan, circa 1990, walking witha a camel and three women

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