2016, 280 p.
My library has taken to identifying fiction books by a label on the spine denoting categories like ‘Australian fiction’ or ‘Romance’ or ‘Science Fiction’. (They’ve also taken to grouping non-fiction by broad themes that leads to the ludicrous situation where a book about the Holocaust ends up in the ‘Travel and Culture’ section- but that’s a complaint for another day.) Misled, perhaps, by the title and the curious egg-shaped image on the front cover, a librarian has labelled Josephine Wilson’s book Extinctions as ‘Science Fiction’. Once you’ve read it, you’ll know how inappropriate that classification is.
Professor Fred Lothian is a sixty-nine years old former engineer, and has recently moved into a retirement village following the death of his wife Martha. Despite his relatively young age (a statement, I suspect, that says more about me than him!), he is thoroughly encased in old-man-curmudgeonliness, hemmed in by the modernist furniture from his large former home that he was unable to relinquish, disdainful of his neighbours and generally not looking after himself. He is estranged, for varying reasons, from his adult children Caroline, a museum display curator and Callum, once a promising sportsman and architect. Looking out his window, he sees another resident collapse in the courtyard, and this sparks a conversation with his next-door neighbour Jan. All he knows of Jan is that she keeps many budgerigars, much to his disgust. He comes to find that she is much more than this, and she brings him to the point where he is forced to face many of the silences and blockages in his life.
It’s not common to have a book set in a retirement village, with such fully realized older characters. (I wonder if we’ll see more as the baby boomer generation ages?) The story is set over a one-week period in January 2006 in Perth. The author, herself resident in Perth, captures the starkly sun-bleached and open nature of the Perth suburbs well, and her ear for dialogue is finely-tuned. It is suggestive of Fred’s own mental scattiness that the book jumps abruptly in time and perspective, and Wilson succeeds well in withholding and revealing information, making the reader work hard in establishing events. You don’t have to work too hard, though, and I realized at the end of the book just how cleverly Wilson had constructed the narrative.
There’s multiple themes and metaphors woven throughout the book- teetering almost on too many. There’s the Stolen Generations, genocide and extinction, adoption, domestic violence and its intergenerational effects, regret and the fissures in family relationships. This sounds a rather grim menu, but it’s leavened by little touches of humour over our shared human foibles.
The narrative time-frame of the book was tight and specific (15 January – 23 January 2006) but tendrils extended back into Fred’s childhood, his marriage, and his relationship with his children. This 8 day frame seemed implausibly tight for the ending, although Wilson had drawn Fred’s impulsivity and mental flailing vividly enough that, as a reader, I could suspend my disbelief enough to be satisfied enough by the ending.
Reminiscent of a W. E. Sebald book, Extinctions contains many photographs which relate at a tangent to the narrative, and they’re a powerful and effective addition to the text. I haven’t heard much about this book beyond Lisa’s review of it at ANZLitlovers, which surprises me. It’s a very accomplished book, and its apparent ease belies careful plotting and a nuanced reading of regret and experience. I hope that it’s there on the Miles Franklin shortlist next year.
My rating: 9/10
Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.
I have linked to this review on the Australian Women Writers Challenge website.