“Language is not merely the external clothing of thought,” wrote the philosopher Charles Taylor. “It is more like a medium into which we are plunged, and which we cannot fully plumb.” Taylor regards language as the means by which we make our world, even the stuff from which our emotions are built. Words provide the coordinates that situate our selves in relation to other selves.
More than anything, Robyn Davidson’s Unfinished Woman represents a struggle with language. The memoir registers its author’s efforts to draw forth and clarify emotions of crushing depth and complexity. It is a book shaped – sometimes elegantly, sometimes agonistically – by an effort to summon into being those who shaped her, and then to understand them. Understanding, for Davidson, is different from judgement because it is animated by love.
How to understand Davidson’s mother, who died by suicide in 1961, when the author was 11 years old? For a writer whose intrepidity made her famous – crossing deserts and hemispheres defiantly solo, meeting peril and discomfort with nonchalance – the reticence with which Davidson approaches this central fact of her early life is notable.
Partly it is a question of honesty. Unfinished Woman opens with a brief history of failed efforts by the author to write about her mother. Those misfires felt too contrived, too “literary”, and falsified Davidson’s impulse to put pen to paper. And yet, she tells us, as the years passed the pressure to release her mother “from the prison of other people’s stories” only grew: “There was no one else who could or would. She had been misrepresented, dishonoured, murdered.”
But it is also a question of confidence. What right does Davidson have to tell the story of a woman she adored but barely knew? And how should she tell that story when so much biographical evidence has been destroyed by time or actively overwritten by those who considered her suicide a shameful act? Her mother, Davidson writes, “always overestimated my talents”: “The job she gave me is beyond them. I have failed her as consistently as Hamlet failed his ghost.”
This pre-emptive admission is shocking coming from a writer whose first book, Tracks – smoothly dispatched in months while the young author was living in Doris Lessing’s London house – became an international bestseller and a cultural touchstone. As we read further, however, it becomes clear that Davidson’s willingness to go on, even in light of her uncertainty, is the only honourable course: a case of stepping back in order to take the larger leap.
The result is a memoir that moves in two directions at once. Davidson’s own strand is centrifugal, growing outwards from an idyllic Australian country childhood – first at Stanley Park, a dusty cattle station in rural Queensland, then to a smallholding in the semi-suburban hinterland of Mooloolah Valley on the Sunshine Coast – to an adulthood of perpetual nomadism.
Davidson passes over the events described in Tracks, taking us to London in the wake of the book’s immense success. In the years that follow, she shuttles back and forth between capital and colonial periphery – London or New York, Sydney or the bush – with a restlessness inspired by love affairs, economic necessity, family illness or simple homesickness.
Only in her early 40s does the author find a still centre: in the Indian Himalayas, in the home of a Rajput aristocrat and politician named Narendra Singh Bhati. Their unorthodox relationship is to be Davidson’s one constant until his death in 2011.
The second strand is centripetal, moving back in time to circle ever more closely her childhood and early life. These chapters, set at such a temporal remove, have a specificity often missing from the globe-trotting sections.
Australian space brings the author to full attention, as does the need to reclaim whatever she can from that brief period when her family was whole. Here we properly meet Gwen Davidson – clever, attractive, petite, warm and highly strung – and her much older adventurer husband, Mark, a man “heroic both in the Greek and the Romantic senses” who sailed a ketch from Madagascar to Queensland at the outbreak of World War II to join the Australian Army, refused an officer’s commission to be closer to his “men”, and performed feats of quiet bravery throughout hostilities. Davidson père did not make it through the war unscathed. He was a benign parent but a distant one. Gwen took up the main burden of rearing Robyn and her older sister while he disappeared into the paddocks. His relish of country life, with its concomitant isolation, meant Gwen’s removal from a milieu that enlivened her. Her growing unhappiness and distress are something her daughter, for whom this was a golden time, only grasps in retrospect.
The triumph of the memoir lies here. The bad, sick, mad, weak mother Robyn was presented with in the wake of her suicide is granted a second look in these pages. She emerges as a vibrant woman who suffers as much from her time, her place, her sex, as any ingrained melancholy.
“The past is beautiful,” wrote Virginia Woolf, “because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later.” Davidson describes her effort in these pages as akin to a task in a fairytale – “an impossible task that must nevertheless be completed” – but Unfinished Woman reveals that it was not the task that was impossible, but its timing. It has taken all these years to assimilate early trauma, for emotion to ripen enough to capture in words the larger, richer feeling of a life.
Bloomsbury, 304pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 14, 2023 as "Unfinished Woman".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription
Purchase this book
Unfinished WomanBUY NOW
When you purchase a book through this link, Schwartz Media earns a commission. This commission does not influence our criticism, which is entirely independent.