A Review of Jill Ker Conway’s The Road From Coorain
by Allison Backous
The word “coorain,” in aboriginal Australian dialects, means “windy place,” which fits the terrain of Jill Ker Conway’s Australia with a devastating accuracy. Ker Conway’s memoir, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary of publication this year, documents her life in New South Wales, her early childhood on her family’s sheep ranch, and the subsequent upheavals that followed an eight-year drought and her father’s suicide. But the book is more than an account of a life made difficult by natural and familial forces. For Ker Conway, the essential narrative of growing up Australian is an acceptance of cruelty, a cruelty made from the harshness of physical elements and the human response to those elements, which, in Ker Conway’s estimation, lay mostly in a deterministic stoicism, a refusal to cry, and a dutiful acceptance of fate. Ker Conway, in her writing, seeks to forge a different narrative for herself, and in so doing, finds an openness that does not assure, but frees.
There are several different narratives that exist in this memoir: the story of the landscape itself, the story of Ker Conway’s immediate family’s tragedies, the story of Ker Conway’s rising academic scholarship and her various encounters with the sexism that pervaded university life (she was denied a position as a historian with the Australian government because, as they reported, she was “too attractive” to work there). The narratives themselves wind through the central story, Ker Conway’s account of her deteriorating relationship with her mother, a woman whose reliance and manipulation of her children, in the years of paranoia following her husband’s death, made her a female equivalent of King Lear. As a historian, Ker Conway is able to read her mother’s faults with compassion: she was a woman who, denied a solid education, found independence through becoming a professional nurse and handling a sheep ranch. She became volatile and paranoid when, after losing a husband and her youth, she was prescribed pain killers to help her “troubles,” and like so many women during the 1950s, slid into a terrifying bitterness prompted by a lack of support, addiction, and the denial to create and participate in civic life. The illustrations that Ker Conway provides are chilling: the moment that breaks the dysfunction, for Ker Conway, occurs when a visit from her brother and sister-in-law, who are bringing the Ker family’s first grandchild, prompts the mother to erupt on the sister-in-law for an imaginary offense (a scratched piece of furniture), and forces Ker Conway to see that the woman who raised her was no longer her mother. It is this realization that helps Ker Conway create a new narrative for herself, one that breaks the hurtful patterns of the former narratives of her life:
“ Now I realized, in what amounted to a conversion experience, that I was going to violate the code of my forefathers. I wouldn’t tell myself anymore that I was tough enough for any hazard, could endure anything…My parents, each in his or her own way, had spent the good things in their lives prodigally and had not been careful about harvesting and cherishing the experiences that nourish hope. I was going to be different.”
Ker Conway, after the incident, decides to leave Australia for good – she applies to Harvard and is accepted, and at the memoir’s end, feels a strange measure of complicity, guilt, and freedom. She tries to define her leaving by the narrative forms she knows: odyssey, emigration, quest. She decides, in slightly Australian fashion, that her departure is one of escape and exile – “I was leaving because I didn’t fit in, never had, and wasn’t likely to” – but then goes on to say that her reasons for leaving come out of great love, for her work, her native Australia, and her new found clarity. Ker Conway’s entire life, in her descriptions, has been a struggle with a fatalistic sense of self, that she was bound to country, and family, and history in a way that made her live grudgingly, always desiring a different kind of life and always feeling guilty for that desire. She does not leave her mother with complete soundness; her mother, refusing psychiatric help, is left at the memoir’s end as a bitter old woman, with no seen hope of improving or healing (despite, being all her life, a natural healer of illness herself). Ker Conway is incredibly aware of what her leaving means, and at the same time, knows that living with her mother would be a different kind of narrative form, one of imprisonment.
What is even more compelling is the way in which Ker Conway investigates herself - she reads her own life in terms of the various physical, emotional and historical landscapes that she has lived in, and seeks to weave her story in the midst of those different landscapes. The ending of the book, although it ends with Ker Conway’s departure (and gives us no extra information, besides the facts that she gets her doctorate and becomes the first female president of Smith College), fits Ker Conway’s reflection perfectly – we are left with her mental wrestling, her heavy yet liberating acceptance of what she is going to do. We do not get closure because she, in the place of experience, does not have closure. Instead, we struggle with her, but both writer and reader are finally removed from the fatalism that has marked her life, and the events of that life. Harvard is an open page, free from Australia but aware of its history, and it is this awareness that makes Ker Conway’s trip one of transplanting, of living in “another country,” as she puts it, redefining her landscape and her horizons.