In the 1970s, Robyn Davidson walked into the deserted outback of Australia with four camels and a dog; 1,700 miles later she emerged at the Indian Ocean. "Tracks," published in 1980, was the account of that journey.
In the 1990s, she followed nomads for a year in India and wrote about it in 1996's "Desert Places."
In between those life-changing adventures and ever since, the restless Davidson has been on the move, roaming from London to Australia to India to America and back, gathering experiences and relationships (with writers Salman Rushdie and Doris Lessing, to name a few). But her constant need for motion seems to have stopped — or at least slowed — in the memoir "Unfinished Woman."
The journey is inward this time, but no less arduous, as Davidson confronts something that has eluded her: "I have been trying to write about my mother for years." A simple sentence, but a fraught one. When Davidson was 11, her mother hanged herself from the rafters of a garage, using the cord from an electric kettle.
Memoirs rarely portray mothers in a positive light, which is the case in "Unfinished Woman." Gwen — or "Little Mummy," as Davidson's father calls her — is a product of her times, of course, which is enough to make Davidson bristle, but Gwen also is lonely in her rural Australian home, burdened by back-breaking domestic responsibilities with no conveniences like a washer and dryer. She does virtually everything by hand, plus she sews the family's clothes. Marital difficulties also play a role in her unhappiness.
Davidson recognizes there were reasons for her mother's depression but appears to be stuck in her anger. Davidson will forever be that 11-year-old whose mother left her. Abandonment colors everything, understandably so: "I don't feel any emotion when I think of my mother's death. … [W]hen I touch the area around that day, I can feel only callus."
Denial runs through the memoir, and Davidson can't seem to figure out how to write her way through it. The fickleness of memory is part of the problem, she thinks. What she chooses to write about is another, as is what other people know about her mother compared with what she knows. Nothing is ever quite true. Regardless, her mother calls to her: "It was if she were imprecating me to release her from the prison of other people's stories."
What follows is an honest accounting, painfully so, as Davidson comes to terms with her mother's life and death and reaches a kind of reckoning with her own life. It's frustratingly amorphous from time to time. In the memoir's later pages, words actually seem to fail Davidson as she tries to explain her state of being.
But as she writes several times: "any human head is a bedlam, if you care to look," and I suppose that's the point. Davidson allows us to see inside — all of it, no matter how messy — and it's definitely worth a look.
Maren Longbella is a Star Tribune copy editor.
Where to find help
Families can find mental health information and resources for crisis care on NAMI Minnesota's website, namimn.org. If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988. You also can text HOME to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Text Line counselor.
By: Robyn Davidson.
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 304 pages, $27.99.