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.
Oh yes, my pet peeve, that inane spine labelling of library books. I confess to doing it with a few books in my own school library but that was only to guide the reluctant readers to the genres they liked (“horror” i.e. Goosebumps; “SF” anything about aliens etc). And I never did it to any book I hadn’t read. As you say, it leads to risible results for adult fiction e.g. Jane Austen hidden where no lover of literature would find it on the romance shelves!
I’m glad you liked Extinctions too, but if you’ve been following the discussion about the cost of entering literary competitions at Whispering Gums, you’ll know that it won’t be entered in the Miles Franklin because UWAP has decided that they just can’t afford it any more…
I had heard that some publishers were no longer putting books up for the MF, but I didn’t realize that UWAP was one of them.
It’s a sign of the times, I think. One good thing, the Vic Premier’s Award has recently announced that they won’t charge small indie publishers the entry fee, and they can submit eBooks. Maybe some of the other awards will follow suit…
I just returned this book to the library unread because someone had it on reserve and I hadn’t got to it. I’m going to get it again.
It’s annoying when that happens- how DARE someone else want to read a book we have out on loan!
Ha! My thoughts exactly 🙂
Lovely review….it has done exactly what it should do…sparked my curiosity for J. Wilson’s book!
Thank you. I hope you enjoy it!
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Hello, said Author here…thanks you for your review; it is so great to see how reader’s engage, and I so pleased you found it engaging. I too hope that someone takes notice…I have had excellent reviews, but for West Australian writers with smaller presses it is difficult to leap across the country. It is so important that commentators such as yourself are contributing to spreading the word. I do hope the library manages to get the book in the correct category, and thank you once more. Josephine W.
How lovely to hear from you! I hope that you continue to garner good reviews of your book.
“Despite his relatively young age (a statement, I suspect, that says more about me than him}”.
Ho Ho Ho. My wife just commented the other day that “they’re getting closer” when another celeb dropped off at 73 (I am a very young 71). Not wanting to sound unpleasant but a week is a long time in a retirement village. Must read the book, it seems.
Because of the pressure of keeping up to date with academic journal articles and reference books, lots of bloggers don’t seem to have time for novels. So some friends and I decided to read at least the Man Booker short listed novels each year.
Now I think we may have to read the short listed Miles Franklin novels as well. Thanks 🙂
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