Book review: Extinctions by Josephine Wilson

(cover art courtesy UWA Publishing)

 

Extinctions the 2017 winner of Australia’s Miles Franklin award is an ambitious novel on a lot of levels.

In its 280-page length, Josephine Wilson has packed an impressive number of issues, sending the two main characters in the book, ageing academic engineer (obsessed with the use of concrete and Modernist design) and grade-A narcissist Fred Lothian and his adopted Indigenous daughter Caroline, on some intense journeys that touch on a series of issues salient to contemporary Australian society.

Everything from ageing to the Stolen Generation to adoption in general and whether it is possible, or even advisable, to atone for past wrongs, familial and otherwise, fill this sometimes engaging novel with a great deal to ruminate on.

The issue then, and I suspect with the plaudits handed to Extinctions on a near-endless platter, I may be in a small minority of one, is that for all the beauty of the writing and incisiveness of ideas expressed, that the book ends up being more than a little emotionally distancing.

“Frederick sat down. It was just too painful to watch Tom hobbling on the Zimmer in the fierce heat. Why would you bother going all that way for an indigestible meal? There was no shade out there and the temperature must be well over forty degrees. Fred has been to one or two meals in the dining room and he wouldn’t be going again … They might as well have erected the villas over a sawdust pit in the ground, because that was how close death was at St Sylvan’s. No archangel beating above you with soft Latin wings, but a dark stinking shithole right beneath your feet.” (P. 3)

Which is an odd thing because Extinctions goes deep and wide in its pursuit of the idea that our lives, for all their good intentions and admirable pursuits, can somehow end up lacking in ways great and small, and we are unaware of this yawning, existentially-agonising deficit until it is too late.

Or is it?

That’s what Fred struggles with as he tries in vain to adjust to life in his retirement home villa, which is crammed with all the modernist furniture that he has collected and clung to over the years, far more possessively and with more fervour that his own wife or children.

It becomes readily apparent that Fred, who grew up in a home where his father ruled with a tyrannically-uncaring hand, was hardly given the best of instructions in how to nurture a spousal relationship or be a loving, involved father to his kids.

The net result of this lack of emotional ability was a distance from the very people he should have been closest to, with his now-dead wife, and brain-injured son relegated to virtual non-existence and his daughter Caroline, while not estranged, grappling with some enormous issues of her own.

 

Josephine Wilson (image courtesy Twitter)

 

It is, in fact, from Caroline’s struggle with her adopted status that the book draws its title, with the idea advanced, quite poetically for such a monumental issue – or rather linked issues with adoption and stolen generation inextricably linked in her life – that if you’re adopted you are in some ways the last of your species, unmoored and disconnected from the greater world around you.

Certainly, it’s how Fred thinks Caroline feels with her latest curatorial effort an exhibition of extinct animals such as the Dodo and the Great Auk; we are never made privy to whether this is fact the case, a refreshing element in a book which resolutely examines but does not seek to impose fixed or firm ideas on what did or didn’t happen, or how someone does or doesn’t feel.

It makes for some sophisticated examining of the issues that dominate the book, with long, often scornful conversations between various characters including Fred’s neighbour Jan, Caroline, and a host of ancillary characters, all of whom to a person regard Fred with varying degrees of pity or scorn, leading Fred to wonder, rather too belatedly if he is in fact some sort of emotional monster.

“By the time the ambulance arrived, Fred’s car battery has been restored and he was fully conscious. he lay on his back with his head on Peter Bessells’ jacket and tried to focus on the seagulls circling the lamps, like vultures over a rotting corpse. ‘I just want to go home’, he muttered. Why couldn’t the monster just go home?” (P. 213)

To her credit, Wilson does not issue any kind of summary judgment on Fred nor does she absolve him or anyone else for that matter, of their sins.

Certainly in comparison to Fred, everyone looks like Mother Teresa on a very good day, but no one is perfect, and while this makes for some devastatingly good writing that keeps you turning the page, the messy traces of fallible, hurtful humanity splashed across chapter after engrossing chapter, it also leaves you feeling, well this reader at least, that you can’t wait to leave Fred and his sorry satellite of people behind.

This unlikeability, which serves the story very well and which persists for the length of Extinctions, some temporarily-meaningful “Come to Jesus” moments aside for Fred – like all of us who struggle with our worthiness as a human being, Fred vacillates between redemptive mea culpas and business-as-people-isolating-usual – nevertheless makes it hard to bear being around these people.

Perhaps that is the point, as we see our own failings and missed opportunities flung confrontingly back in our faces, but it makes for an emotionally-unpleasant read that had me racing to finish the book just to get away from these people.

Maybe I saw my own reflection, maybe I didn’t, and perhaps they were simply the sort of characters who served a story well but have the effect of leaving you cold and uninvolved; whatever the cause and the effect, Extinctions left me feeling curiously unengaged, and uncaring of the events of the final act which while not decisive (this is not that kind of book) did matter.

Extinctions then is a book that reads beautifully, luxuriant in its ideas and the artfully-beautiful expression of them, populated by very real people struggling to live life as they imagined it should or could be, but to achieve that end, it uses characters that leave you happy to reach the end of the book, a pity since there is some much to explore in what is otherwise a brilliantly-conceived and written book.

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