Cover of book: On Robyn Davidson

Richard Cooke
On Robyn Davidson

It begins with lightkeeper Esther Nunn, inspired after she is sent Tracks by a friend. Or it begins with author Anna Krien, for whom Robyn Davidson has been a moral compass since, as a child, Krien saw Davidson on the cover of National Geographic. Or it begins with Richard Cooke’s wife, Loulou, similarly smitten. The story really begins long before those moments though, before the 1980 publication of Davidson’s influential Tracks, when journalists travelled to interview “the camel lady” while she was on her now-famous journey. Cooke seeks to understand the appeal of Davidson and, while he keeps his enthusiasm in check, he clearly numbers among those who have been inspired.

Tracks, about the Queenslander’s 2500-kilometre trek from Alice Springs to the West Australian coast, brought Davidson instant attention that then turned into publisher pressure. Davidson resisted that pressure, and although she has since published both fiction and nonfiction, she still doesn’t think of herself as a writer. Cooke has tasked himself with the difficult job of pinning down someone who refuses easy classification, and he deftly explores what it means that Davidson associates writing with a loss of freedom.

Davidson observes that it would be impossible to make the journey in the same way now. Aside from the fact that our population has more than doubled, technology brings increased scrutiny. What differed about Davidson’s journey at the time was not just that she was a solo woman, but also that she was white. Hers was not dissimilar to journeys made by Indigenous Australians, and Cooke looks closely at the way in which Davidson addresses issues of racism and sexism.

This is the latest in the “Writers on Writers” series of short hymns by contemporary writers, and Cooke’s follow-up to last year’s volume about America in decline, Tired of Winning. He visits Davidson in Castlemaine, where she has settled after a life that has been far from conventional: she has lived in a squat, and in Doris Lessing’s basement; had a tempestuous relationship with Salman Rushdie; trained as a concert pianist; and was there at the end of the Sydney Push. Her memoir has been brewing for a couple of decades, and while it might be easy to think that this renewed focus could be what it takes for Davidson to finish, Cooke cautions against wanting more. Perhaps what we have is enough.

Louise Swinn

Black Inc, 96pp, $17.99
Black Inc is a Schwartz company.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 27, 2020 as "Richard Cooke, On Robyn Davidson".

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Reviewer: Louise Swinn

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