From the very first pages of her new memoir, Robyn Davidson grapples with how to recollect the past.
“The way memory plays in the mind is not factual,” she writes. “It is sketchy, mythical, misremembered, contradictory. It is flickers of light on unfathomable darkness. We go back over and over the past, watching it change with each take, not thinking of it as what happened so much as, what does it mean?”
If you read my blog or listen to my podcast, you’ve probably read her wonderful book Tracks.
Davidson was 27 years old when she walked across Australia with four camels and a dog. “It was a deeply private act,” she writes, “which I assumed would hold no interest for others. I had no intention of writing about it afterwards, nor of recording the journey as it was happening. It was the doing of something just for myself.”
By the time she reached the Indian Ocean, she was front page news in Australia and on the cover of hundreds of international magazines, thanks in part to the National Geographic photographer who had come out to meet her on her walk.
The experience changed her in unexpected ways. “It rerouted my fate and recast my prospects,” she writes, “and it would affect others, intimates as well as strangers, in ways that were baffling to me at the time.”
The act of writing also raised questions around how memory itself reconstructs past experience.
“I noticed that, as I wrote, the memories were being subsumed into the book, such that I no longer had ready access to them. They seemed to blur and fade as the writing progressed, as if the book was cannibalizing the reality it described.”
Her fascination with nomads endured, but her reasons for moving changed over time. “Previously, living in other places meant an overhaul of comprehension itself, testing whether what had seemed self-evident was really only prejudice,” she writes. “But the geographical displacements left me with no sense of ground. As if bits of myself were being flung all over the globe.”
Adapting constantly to the new can conceal as well as enrich, and for Davidson, the pressure of those hidden layers was building towards eruption into conscious awareness.
“Like anything, upheaval can become a habit. Leaving a place, you have the illusion that constraints are left behind. You feel lighter, fresh. But eventually the comet tail catches up with you, and the heaviness returns. You begin to miss, not so much the other places themselves, but the self brought into being by those places.”
As she oscillated between the push of the nomadic versus the pull of a settled life, Davidson came to understand that “there is one thing a residence can give you, that the road cannot […] the privacy to dream in peace.”
By the time she reached her mid-forties — the same age at which her mother committed suicide — those dreams took on a new urgency. They focused on the deepest well of her past.
“I had few memories of my childhood and none of my mother,” she writes. “Or perhaps it is more correct to say that I contained a stockpile but I had never bothered to haul them up.”
She knew she had to write about those years, but in a life spent lighting out for new frontiers, the act of looking backward held little appeal: “I had used a kind of scorched-earth policy in regard to my past: I threw bombs over my shoulder, and seeds ahead of me, into the future, on the assumption that when I arrived there, something would be growing.”
Uncovering her childhood would not be easy. As she scraped away at layer after layer, she also interrogated the act of remembering.
“I know the gold sandals were real” she writes when telling the story of the day her mother died, “that I wore them on a particular day and this led to an altercation with my mother on the stairs” but “the other details in the picture […] have been furnished by my imagination.”
This struggle to recapture a lost — or deliberately buried — childhood also leads her to question who is doing the remembering:
“When I remember my mother gardening, I remember it from inside my body; that is to say, I don’t see myself in the scene, I am myself. But in another scene I am slightly to the left of, and slightly behind, myself. And that is the position from which I recall most of the things that have happened to me. What is that trick of memory? Do we all remember ourselves as actors in our own lives?”
Towards the last third of the book, in one of her most beautifully written passages, Davidson accepts that she will never really understand her mother, or remember her:
“I came to terms with the fact that my mother could not, could never, be found, that the only wisps remaining of her tiny moment on earth were encoded in me — those tail ends of thoughts which rose in her mind like fish surfacing into the light, thoughts of which I am in some degree a continuation. We take our mothers into us; that is where they live.
In order to write about her and her time, to honour that nanoscopic existence, I had to write about myself and my own time, even though ‘I’ would not be the same ‘I’ of my multitudinous past selves. Not a narrative, nor a reconstruction, but rather a searching through the mysterious residue left by time and events.”
Alternating between her own story and the story of her mother leads Davidson to what I think is her most interesting question: How much of our lives are the result of deliberate choices, and how much is governed by fate?
What if she hadn’t set out on her long camel journey? What if she hadn’t met that key person at an airport in India? What if she’d gone to university and taken a job? What if her mother had lived?
“I seem to have had an unusually fateful life, not in the supernatural sense, but more mundanely,” she writes, where “odd and unlikely events, coincidences, have produced enormous effects, fanning out into future time, and seemingly outside my control. Perhaps a strong fate is nothing more than a reckless disregard for consequences, which can look like courage, but is really something else — a curiosity greater than fear.”
It took me a long time to read Unfinished Woman. I found myself stopping every couple pages as memories of my own childhood bubbled into conscious awareness.
Some were events or encounters I’d long forgotten, and some were familiar memories that Davidson prompted me to think about from new angles. Did it really happen the way I remembered? And how could I possibly have understood what it meant?
More than anything, I stopped to think about how our lives take us in some directions and not others, and how little control we have over it.
Get your copy of this unforgettable book here ==> Unfinished Woman by Robyn Davidson