October 03, 1994 12:00 PM

Jill Ker Conway

Devastating drought, death by drowning, a fatal car accident, psychological torment—all were part of Jill Ker Conway’s early life, and all were described in engrossing detail in the first volume of her memoirs, The Road from Coorain, published to critical acclaim in 1989. Now comes the sequel, True North, an account of her life between ages 25 and 40, and there’s no letup in the action—or in the tragedy.

The story resumes with Conway leaving her native Australia (where she grew up on an isolated sheep station) to seek academic opportunities not available at home. She attends graduate school at Harvard, where she meets and marries John Conway, a social scientist 18 years her senior, whose right hand was shot off in World War II. Not only must the couple deal with the suffering in their pasts, but they are beset by new troubles—his manic-depressive disorder and her infertility.

At a particularly low point, Conway believes she’ll never be able to throw off the overwhelming sadness in her life and “live like a normal person.” But she does just that and more, rising in academia to become the first woman president of Smith College and also enjoying a rich life with her devoted husband. The one flaw of the book is Conway’s tendency to wax lyrical—and at great length—about friends she has met along the way. She should stick to describing herself and her relations with her family. This is a woman willing to confess that she came close to killing her abusive mother by bashing her head in with a rock as the mother dozed on a couch in her suburban Sydney home. Conway’s work is at its best at honest moments such as this—and True North teems with them. (Knopf, $23)

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