Her way

by Listener Archive / 05 July, 2003

CRAFT FOR A DRY LAKE, by Kim Mahood (Random, $26.95).

What is it about memoir? Everybody's writing it, from the famous to the downright ordinary. Maybe prominent people want to get their oar in before some lying toad of a biographer subjects them to tortuous Freudian analysis that reduces their life's work to Something Awful That Mummy or Daddy Did.

But for relative unknowns such as Kim Mahood, writing memoir seems to be an attempt to make sense of childhood experience so that one can reside comfortably within the present. It's easy to fall into the terrible sin of skiting, or to produce a vengeful memoir where everyone except the writer comes across as a right bastard. Mahood has risen above these temptations, and the result is a fantastic read.

Mahood is 50 years old, she is a visual artist, this is her first published book, and the place she writes about is the Outback, a place so mythologised and embedded in the Australian psyche that it has functioned as a literary (and literal) Dreamtime for generations of urban sophisticates. Has she said anything fresh?

The answer is a resounding yes. Mahood's account of her life moves beyond personal anecdotes to a lyrical and moving analysis of Australians' complex and constantly shifting relationships to the land.

One day, she gets into her clapped-out car with her dog Sam and drives back to her childhood home and the old haunts of her father. During this long journey, she begins to make sense of the mysteries of the past, in particular, the character of her late father. On the surface, he seemed to be a typically laconic cattle rancher. But, like her, he was an artist, a loner. She discovers that although she came back to the remote station to lay the ghost of her father, she is confronted instead with herself.

Another insight occurs when towards the end of her journey she is invited to participate in an Aboriginal ritual. Although she mixed with Aborigines as a child, and spoke the local language, she finds that the women's ceremony "has shaken me out of the notion that I have any real knowledge of, or relationship with, Aborigines and their culture. The stories I have told to city friends, that have given my life a glamorous and exotic edge, seem like flimsy posturing."

We enter into a conversation with Mahood, a dialogue that is at once both personal and universal. Her beautifully written stories and insights are always shaped by the immensity of the landscape, both geographical and mythological. In the end, she sees the constant shift and reinterpretation of the Outback myth as barely relevant to the awesome presence of the country itself.

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