Unfinished Woman by Robyn Davidson

Article | Nov 2023

ROBYN DAVIDSON is the internationally bestselling author of her 1980 book Tracks which detailed her trek across the Western Australian desert. In her new memoir Unfinished Woman Davidson delves into her childhood and youth to uncover the forces that set her on her path, and confront the cataclysm of her early loss. Read on for an extract.

 

ABOUT THE BOOK

In 1977, twenty-seven-year-old Robyn Davidson set off with a dog and four camels to cross 1,700 miles of Australian desert to the sea.

A life of almost constant travelling followed. From the deserts of Australia, to Sydney’s underworld; from Sixties street life, to the London literary scene; from migrating with nomads in Tibet, to ‘marrying’ an Indian prince, Davidson’s quest was motivated by an unquenchable curiosity about other ways of seeing and understanding the world.

Davidson threw bombs over her shoulder and seeds into her future on the assumption that something would be growing when she got there. The only terrain she had no interest in exploring was the past.

In Unfinished Woman Davidson turns at last to explore that long avoided country. Through this brave and revealing memoir, she delves into her childhood and youth to uncover the forces that set her on her path, and confront the cataclysm of her early loss.

Unfinished Woman is an unforgettable investigation of time and memory, and a powerful interrogation of how we can live with and find beauty in the uncertainty and strangeness of being.

EXTRACT

Eight

Hunkering down. Playing the piano. Remembering.

I say it was the music that summoned my mother, but perhaps she would have come forth anyway. I was approaching the age at which she died – 46 – and that alone might have made her restless. The London flat had been a base for several years, and even though I was commuting between London and India, London and Tibet, London and Australia, London and Anywhere in order to avoid it, the past was approaching closer and closer.

I was aware that the life I had constructed had shaky foundations. So much was obvious. But I had taken that as a given, and not something to focus on. People survive much worse than having mothers who commit suicide. And scratching around in the landscape behind you, looking for terrible things, has always struck me as being … indulgent. Better to thank the gods for their beneficence so far.

But why had the affair been so destructive? I must have believed that I could not really be harmed, deep at the core where it counted. But that is precisely where the harm had been done. An evisceration.

It was Love, of course. Not ordinary love, but one of those spiritually costly passions that rips away pride, common sense, intelligence. Deep love and deep sex, for
which we have to emerge from our hiding places, exposed, vulnerable and blind as grubs.

Because of the circumstances in which I met him, I had thought myself safe. He was committed to another life on the far side of the planet – a life I had no wish to enter. As well, the situation was contained by a limited period of time. A coup de foudre tucked inside parentheses.

So I gave myself to him completely. I would like to leave it at that, but as it was one of those events around which an existence turns, I must explain more, even though, in essence, it was like any other grand passion – full of melodrama and narcissism as well as soaring joy. At its best, the sensation of flying, of being met, and matched, of never having to slow down. As if you’ve found the twin you’ve been searching for all your life. A cocktail of delusion and truth.

I was back in Australia at that time, an interregnum between the first and second periods of living in London. We met on the phone, through a mutual friend. He was
reading my book, he said. He would be in Sydney for a few days, on his way home, he said. It was strange that we hadn’t met in London, as we had friends and publishers in common, he said. Yes, he would come by for dinner on his way through, he said.

And both of us knew …

I had been living with a partner for years, but that had ended, and I had moved away. I did not want to be with anyone else. I was enjoying being on my own. But an affair … a safely contained, impossible-to-go-anywhere affair … There would be a safety net over which to test my wings – the net of no commitment, of never-to-be-seen-again.

In all my previous loves, something (one could almost use the word ‘soul’ here) had been withheld. Now, inside the security of those parentheses, I could risk revealing that essence, or core. When our time was up, I walked away happier with myself than I could remember, and with this person whom I would not meet again. To have been seen, and found loveable, that was enough. That was everything.

But a couple of weeks after he left, I received a letter. His marriage had ended a long time ago. He had been separating just as I had. He was coming back to me.

At such a moment of blindsiding joy, how could anyone worry about the breach of that concluding bracket?

He flew from London. We were together about three weeks. Nothing of such intensity had happened to either of us before. In that state of mutual disarmament, trust is as essential as it is between trapeze artists flying into each other’s arms. If one or the other refuses the catch …

Already insecurities, uncertainties had begun to show themselves, first in one, then in the other, and it was as if these ripples of disturbance oscillated at an ever increasing amplitude, as synchronised steps can shatter a bridge.

An overwhelming intensity of love and desire, followed by fear and withdrawal. One night, he said, ‘I’m leaving. I’m going back to my wife.’

I lay on the floor, with the sensation that I had been opened from throat to pelvis. I would do anything, anything at all to make that sensation go away. I thought, I can stand this much, but if it gets worse, I will not survive it.

I abased myself. If he left now survival wasn’t possible. But he did leave. He went to a hotel. The next morning he returned. We had sex and the pain subsided. So the pattern was set – abandonment and return, to be repeated over and over until there was nothing left.

I understood dimly, even then, that the devastation was too enormous to be the result of abandonment by a lover. This had to be what had lain beneath the callus all those years – the long-delayed shock of a more essential loss.

He went back to London, returned again, left again. Eventually we agreed that I should go to London to live with him.

He left his wife. He bought a house in Islington for us. I dismantled my life in Australia and followed him a few months later.

It should have been obvious that there had been no time in which to recover, in which to build a solid footing capable of supporting the added stress load of entering
someone else’s life.

The London I had known before was not like this one. This London was more socially ambitious, more competitive. It was nourished on gossip, and we were nothing if not gossip fodder. He enjoyed the attention; for me it was like being paraded naked.

Nor did I think of myself as a writer; that is to say, it did not form my identity. I had come to writing in such an unlikely way, in my own mind I had simply pulled another rabbit out of a hat. As I had done all my life, with everything.

His identity, on the other hand, was entirely taken up by his work, by the wish to be acknowledged and loved for it.

The gnawing sensation of being out of place, placeless, was reflected in the house. It was comfortable, but it did not contain a room for me into which I could retreat, where I might regain my stability, gather myself. As well, it was beige from floor to ceiling. Wherever you looked you were greeted by deathly beige. I suggested that I paint it – as a way, I suppose, of making it our home; that is to say, as much mine as his. But that would have disrupted his work so beige it remained.

There was no secure ground for me, it seemed, either in the house or in his life outside the house.

Yet within the universe of two, we were in other ways profoundly united. We finished each other’s thoughts, each other’s sentences, even completed each other’s dreams at night. But just as ecstasy leaves the self behind to fuse with something larger, so such psychic merging can be befuddling, can cut you off from your own good sense.

Two damaged children each with a different bedlam inside their heads.

An older friend, fond of us both, said, when she first saw us together, ‘You will have to learn to mother each other.’

It goes without saying that we never did.

I remained with him longer than I should have, a couple of years, because I could not understand the reason for the upheavals, for the abandonments. There had to be something in me, in my behaviour, that caused them. If I could find out what that was, then the oscillations would cease, and only love would remain. Such is the dementing effect of desire on intelligence. Any idiot could see that this was not the nature of the beast. My childhood loves primed me to assume that any anger coming my way had to be my fault, my responsibility.

Towards the end (by which time the oscillations were off the scale), I had sent for my furniture in Australia. I don’t know what had been in my mind. Perhaps I thought the presence of my ‘things’ in the house might encourage a sense of belonging there. But by the time it all arrived, I was in the throes of leaving him. This might have been a more drawn-out process had it not been for the poem.

It was left on the pillow on my side of the bed. It was a poem addressed to me in the form of a curse.

One does not have to believe in the power of curses for the curses to wing their way inside the target and do their damage there. I walked away eventually, but I was a different being.

Think of a cup which has been cracked but so successfully mended that you cannot see the fault line. The cup seems perfect and entire but is structurally weakened so that, if it is dropped a second time, it shatters along that invisible flaw – splintering and crazing into bits.

So … a calamity. Stupid years of shock followed by aftershock. The awfulness of the ending was not just the end of an affair, but something much more damaging. Annihilation was its goal. When I left him, the final time, knowing I would not go back, I dreamt that I was a cigarette he was smoking. I was turned to ash, then stubbed out.

‘Love must not touch the marrow of the soul,’ said Phaedra’s nurse. But what, ultimately, was it all about? All that Sturm und Drang. And how will I evaluate those years from a longer perspective, when I am able to discern more clearly what they gave rise to? And what is he to me now? Neither friend nor foe. An indifference. Yet through him I touched something mythical and primal, outside of individuality. An ecstatic infant love gone nuclear.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Robyn Davidson author 1Robyn Davidson was born on a cattle property in Queensland. She moved to Sydney in the late Sixties, then returned to study in Brisbane before going to Alice Springs to prepare for her journey across the Australian desert. Davidson’s first book Tracks, her account of this crossing, was an international sensation, and was adapted for a film starring Mia Wasikowska and Adam Driver. She has travelled extensively, and has lived in London, New York and India. In the early 1990s Davidson migrated with and wrote about nomads in north-west India. She is now based in regional Victoria, but spends some time each year in India.

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Author: Robyn Davidson

Category: Biography & True Stories

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Bloomsbury

ISBN: 9781408837160

RRP: $34.99

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