Why do we read memoir anyway? Whose life is interesting enough to, well, deserve that I should spend several hours on it, instead of alphabetizing my spice cupboard or for that matter, writing my own memoir? Who is going to provide me with a vicarious experience that will be informative or stimulating or packed with emotional insight?
Actually, most of the memoirs I’ve read recently fall into that category, which suggests that either I’ve been very lucky in my selection or that I’m selling the entire genre too short. Because Jill Ker Conway’s The Road from Coorain is another worth-while read. First, and most notably, because Conway grew up in the Australian bush, and her description of that childhood is a loving and vivid portrait of a kind of life that probably doesn’t exist any more. (It bears comparison to the brilliant Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller, a memoir of an African childhood.) I suspect that Conway’s descriptions of life on Coorain, a sheep station, will stick with me longer than the rest of the book simply for their exotic quality, and possibly because Conway describes them with the special clarity of childhood memories.
The rest of her story colors an intellectual coming-of-age tale (not dissimilar to Karen Armstrong’s The Spiral Staircase) with a specifically Australian palette. Conway gradually discovers that she is a true intellectual, but in the 1950s this makes her a very unusual woman. Further complication is supplied by Australia’s own identity crisis during the period. Conway is troubled by the colonial spirit of her country, and by its persistence in measuring itself against Great Britain. Having spent her early childhood in an environment that was specifically, uniquely Australian, she deplores an intellectual culture that takes its values and principles from that island nation on the other side of the globe. She compares the Australian origin myth to the American:
Why was my mind full of images of exhausted, marginal people, or outlaws like Ned Kelly, rather than triumphant frontier figures like Daniel Boone or Buffalo Bill? I knew that somehow it had to do with our relationship to nature, and with the way in which the first settlers’ encounter with this environment had formed the inner landscape of the mind, the unspoken, unanalyzed relationship to the order of creation which governs our psyches at the deepest level. Australians saw that relationship as cruel and harsh…”
This is just not material — not a past, not provocative writing about a past — that I could find anywhere besides the memoir of a thoughtful observer and writer who had an unusual experience to relate. Possibly a good definition of what makes the genre worth reading?