Unfinished Woman: A Memoir

  • By Robyn Davidson
  • Bloomsbury Publishing
  • 304 pp.

This challenging, rich reflection rewards patient readers.

Unfinished Woman: A Memoir

Australian writer Robyn Davidson has made a career out of wandering. So, it’s not a shock that her new memoir, Unfinished Woman, meanders. The text within each chapter bounces back and forth across continents, swings in and out of different decades, and then hangs out a minute in reflection — just long enough for readers to catch their breath.

The spark that sets the book in motion is her mother’s suicide when Davidson was 11. (“My mother hanged herself from the rafters of our garage, using the cord of our electric kettle.”) It was the 1960s in rural Queensland, and the stigma around mental illness prevented any meaningful discussion about what actually happened.

Davidson admits that she didn’t give her mother much thought after she passed. Then, when she turned 43, the same age her mother was when she killed herself, Davidson became obsessed with understanding why her mother did what she did. In that way, the “unfinished woman” of the book’s title could be the author or her mother. She writes:

“I don’t feel any emotion when I think of my mother’s death. I have imagined the act, what it required to do it, but I imagine it as one sees a scene in a film. It seems to hold no special significance for me. Perhaps by the time she killed herself I was already quite far away.”

Davidson rose to literary-rockstar status in her home country after publishing her first book, Tracks, which she says she wrote by accident following a 1977 solo walking trip across Australia accompanied by four camels and a dog. That first memoir was a smash hit and launched Davidson’s career.

Unfinished Woman briefly discusses her experiences writing and promoting Tracks. In one section, she notes that her father, a rather stoic stockman, burst into tears after reading the book’s first line — “I arrived in the Alice at five a.m. with a dog, six dollars and a small suitcase full of inappropriate clothes” — ashamed that he hadn’t given his daughter any cash to help her on that life-defining journey.

Davidson’s writing about writing is one of the most delicious aspects of Unfinished Woman. She talks about her time chronicling nomads in India and her friendship with the legendary Doris Lessing. It is her frankness about her struggle to capture her mother’s likeness on the page, though, that gives the book a satisfying intimacy, as if we are invited into the author’s brain.

It is also this intimacy that allows Unfinished Woman to get away with its peculiar, rambling structure. The memoir is anything but a breezy beach read and takes work to get through. Like Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, its prose often zooms by, but the reader must pay careful attention to each word to keep up.

Hence, if you’re looking for a typical travel-journey tale with a tidy beginning, middle, and end — à la Cheryl Strayed’s Wild or Tim Cope’s On the Trail of Genghis Khan — this isn’t it. But meaning-making is a process that only sometimes makes narrative sense, and this is a book that rewards readers who stick with it. Davidson’s insights into legacy, travel, and creativity are often quietly profound.

Unfinished Woman understands that all good memoirs look beyond the vacuum of the self. So, in its pages, Davidson also offers a portrait of her parents’ marriage, which was one of opposites. While her mother was an educated, artistic type from an urban corner of the country, her father was a cattleman and an adventurer. Davidson fully depicts both people and her relationship with them. Through her bond with her parents, we come to recognize the author’s many selves as she grows into adulthood. First, she is the child of a strange mother in a small, rural community. Later, she’s a student at boarding school with a grieving father who doesn’t understand her. Eventually, she is a grown woman living in places far away from where she started.

While its narrative arc isn’t straightforward, Unfinished Woman is a valuable study in the art of memoir. It reveals a messy truth of humanity — that the places we’re in and the people we’re with strongly influence who we are. It then reveals an even messier truth: No matter where we go, there we are.

Gretchen Lida is an essayist and an equestrian. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other publications. She is a contributing writer at Horse Network and the Independent and host of “HN Reads,” a podcast about horse books. She lives in Chicago.

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