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Unfinished Woman - Robyn Davidson

Updated: Dec 4, 2023

A  great peripatetic Australian writer
Robyn Davidson

Any Australian woman of my generation will have heard of, if not be a huge fan of author and adventurer Robyn Davidson who catapulted into the public imagination following the publication of her book Tracks. I was definitely a fan girl from the get go so when the opportunity arose to interview her I leapt at it.

Written in 1980, Tracks is the searing account of Davidson's epic 2,700 km journey with a dog and four camels from Alice Springs to the Indian ocean, across the unforgiving Gibson Desert.

It was a feat that seemed to epitomise the Women's Liberation movement of the time and was broadcast to the world in a brilliant National Geographic photo essay by Rick Smolan.

That was when she was 27. Now, aged 73, she reflects on all that was before and after that monumental moment in her life, in her memoir Unfinished Woman. This incredible evocation of time and place follows tendrils of memory back to moments of meaning that somehow resonate with universal truths of the human experience.

Davidson grapples with what she calls a “scattered and untrustworthy memory” to make sense of the senseless suicide of her mother. She was just 11 at the time and it was only when she was 46, the same age as her mother was when she killed herself, that she started writing this book.

My mother hanged herself from the rafters of our garage, using the cord of our electric kettle." Davidson writes, unable to dodge the brutal reality of the act. And this was after Gwen or "Little Mummy" had endured bouts of electric shock treatment, a practice prevalent in the 1950s to treat depression and other mental heath issues. It was an awful lot for a young girl to comprehend, let alone an adult.

It was much later in life that Davidson struggled with her own suicidal tendencies which eventually led to a nervous breakdown that enabled her mother to be brought forth and ultimately honoured in this book. In the final analysis she comes to the compassionate conclusion that, "love might defy the heartlessness of nature."

Davidson says it took her a full 30 years to write Unfinished Woman - Robyn Davidson. It was stitched together across 3 continents with episodes written in London, the Himalayas and Australia. She traces a childhood spent on a cattle station in the Western Downs of Queensland and later in Mooloolah, closer to the coast.

She is haunted by the words her older sister uses to taunts her with; “Useless, ugly, stupid." But they spur her on to a quiet greatness. From "lacking an essential self worth", Robyn learns an essential truth - that if you don't bring forth what is within you, it will destroy you. And so it is with this book that she does just that, breaking open her "carapace" and finding herself in the present, a place where she can appreciate her "very fortunate life."

Photograph by Rick Smolan
Robyn Davidson, 'The Camel Lady" 1977


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