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Unfinished Woman: A Memoir


Unfinished Woman: A Memoir

Ten years ago, Robyn Davidson told a Sydney Morning Herald reporter in her native Australia that she had been struggling for several years with a memoir prompted mainly by complex childhood recollections of her mother, who died by suicide at 46.

During the mid-1990s, as Davidson’s fast-paced life approached the same age, it seemed as if her “absorbed” (a word she has used) mother demanded some difficult attention. After much soul-searching, changes of direction, emotional backtracking, second-guessing, and numerous other complications that happen when suppressed memories run headlong into the here and now, UNFINISHED WOMAN was, well, finished --- the book that is.

Sometimes, long gestations pay off. This is a memoir that stands both proudly and imperfectly (gloriously so) as a testament to human ingenuity, uncertainty and raw courage.

"This is a memoir that stands both proudly and imperfectly (gloriously so) as a testament to human ingenuity, uncertainty and raw courage."

Rather than being the continuous story of Davidson's relationship with both a living and remembered person, UNFINISHED WOMAN is often a crazy quilt of emotions, fragmented experiences, back-and-forth chronologies, and unanswered questions. Middle-aged Robyn openly struggles with preteen Robyn, whose life on a struggling outback homestead was by then a universe away from her incredibly migratory adulthood (Davidson has lived at more than 50 addresses all over the world).

Davidson’s book turns out to be not primarily about her mother, at least not in a conventional autobiographical sense. She works hard to build relatable portraits of her distant father, who seems to have had more big ideas than income, and of an older sister whose affections blew hot or cold depending on their mother’s current favorite. She draws together the few remembered images and artifacts of the family’s isolated life (likely a contributor to her mother’s fatal depression) and connects them --- though often vaguely --- with the bohemian existence she embarked on as a teenager. She had no immediate goal but to leave home.

In 1977, having already gathered enough colorful and risky experiences for a book, Davidson embarked on the epic adventure for which she’d become world-famous for several years afterwards. Accompanied only by a dog and four pack camels, she set out alone to cross 1,700 miles of Australian desert on foot, all the way to the ocean. Without having made any formal notes about her trek, she poured her vast memories of it first to the prestigious National Geographic magazine, then into the bestselling book TRACKS, which years later became a movie.

How does anyone follow an act like that? Davidson’s response was to simply keep traveling, away from old memories, always looking for new ones. Never resting in one place or job for very long, she found herself becoming a writer without ever intending it as a career. And along the way, she experienced multiple found-and-lost relationships (of which the most significant was her long quasi-marriage to the Indian aristocrat Narendra Singh Bhati, until his death in 2011).

To describe Davidson as complicated, mercurial, brilliant, exotic or any of those mixed blessings that percolate into an artistic temperament still would be missing the mark. She is definitely her own brand, one in which fierce vulnerability is the norm.

Perhaps the big question, rhetorical as it may seem, is: Exactly who is “unfinished”? Is it the author, her mother, the reader, all of us? Maybe the core idea is in the asking, not the answer. All I know is that the more one reads in UNFINISHED WOMAN, the more apt its title becomes.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on February 9, 2024

Unfinished Woman: A Memoir
by Robyn Davidson

  • Publication Date: December 5, 2023
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 1620401622
  • ISBN-13: 9781620401620