Review: Extinctions by Josephine Wilson

I don’t often get a chance to read the wonderful-sounding Australian books I see on prize shortlists or on Kate’s blog, so I was delighted when Extinctions, which won the 2017 Miles Franklin Literary Award, was published in the UK last year. It may just be my mind making easy associations, but Josephine Wilson’s second novel indeed reminded me of other Australian fiction I’ve enjoyed, including The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr, Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar, and The Singing Ship by Rebecca Winterer. I can’t quite put my finger on what these novels have in common despite their disparate time settings. A hot and forbidding landscape? An enduring sense of pioneer spirit, of survival against the odds? All four, to an extent, pit an explorer’s impetus against family trauma and/or racial difference.

The antihero of Extinctions is widower Frederick Lothian, who at age 69 is a reluctant resident of St Sylvan’s Estate retirement village. It’s January 2006, the middle of a blistering Australian summer, and amid his usual morbid activities of reading the newspaper obituaries and watching his elderly co-residents fall over outside his air-conditioned unit, he has plenty of time to drift back over his life. A retired engineer, he’s an expert on concrete construction as well as a noted collector of modernist furniture. But he’s been much less successful in his personal life. His son is in a care home after a devastating accident, and his adopted daughter Caroline, who is part Aborigine, blames and avoids Fred. A run-in with a nosy neighbor, Jan, forces him to face the world – and his past – again.

Meanwhile, Caroline is traveling in the UK to secure specimens for a museum exhibit on extinct species, and the idea of feeling utterly lonesome, like the last of one’s kind, recurs: Frederick sits stubbornly on his own at St Sylvan’s, pondering the inevitability of death; Caroline and Jan, both adopted, don’t have the comfort of a family lineage; and the museum specimens whose photographs are dotted through the novel (including the last passenger pigeon, Martha, which also – not coincidentally, I’m sure – was Fred’s wife’s name) represent the end of the line.

A famous modernist chair features in the book. This is just my office chair.

I loved pretty much everything about this book: the thematic connections, the gentle sense of humor (especially during Fred and Jan’s expensive restaurant dégustation), the chance for a curmudgeonly protagonist to redeem himself, and the spot-on writing. Highly recommended.

My rating:

 

A favorite passage:

“Like many educated people, Frederick had his opinions, most of which were set in concrete so as to render them more akin to truths, but in reality politics and modern history were his weak points – along with poetry. Where poetry and politics were concerned he feared a lack of foundation, which left him vulnerable to challenge. Deep down he knew that opinion – like concrete – was most resilient when well founded and reinforced.”

Other readalikes: Darke by Rick Gekoski & Ok, Mr Field by Katharine Kilalea

 

 

With thanks to Serpent’s Tail for the free copy for review.

13 responses

  1. Like you, I often spot books on Kate’s blog that I’m eager to read including this one but I hadn’t realised it had been published in the UK. I’ll pop it on my list. Thanks, Rebecca.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My goodness, he does sound an old curmudgeon, and MUCH older than me, though in fact I’m older than him. So I’m a little suspicious. Is it written by one of those people who presume to call older people ‘silver surfers’ et al and assume we’re set in our ways just because we’ve passed retirement age?

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    1. “Josephine Wilson is an Australian writer and academic. She lives in Perth, Western Australia. She was born in Lincolnshire, England, and came to live in Australia with her family at the age of six. She writes essays, poetry and fiction. Born: 1966 (age 53 years)” (Wikipedia)

      Part of the pleasure of the book is seeing how Fred changes — I couldn’t talk too much about this without spoilers.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. This sounds wonderful. Off to add it to my list!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. That does sound an interesting read with a lot to say.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love that quote – I know people like that!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This one I’m really looking forward to. Did he always read the obits, or is it a habit he’s picked up as a reluctant resident? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it’s a sign of how morbid he is … which stems from various tragedies in his life.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This sounds great Rebecca and I love the cover.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The U.S. cover is more familiar in that it’s a floral design, which was all the rage last year, but I rather like the orange and blue and the odd chair.

      Like

  7. […] Hendrik Groen in his two titular Dutch diaries, and Frederick Lothian in Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions. So it’s no surprise that I warmed immediately to Olive Kitteridge, a grumpy retired math teacher […]

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