Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 11, 2016

Extinctions, by Josephine Wilson

extinctions Extinctions, by Josephine Wilson, won the 2015 Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, and I am not surprised: it is an utterly absorbing novel that I was sorry to finish.  Do not let this book slip under your radar just because you’re busy with the Silly Season!

Professor Frederick Lothian, a man so given to discontentment that he complains about his own name, is a retired engineering expert on concrete and a pompous hoarder of modernist furniture.  He has finally given in to the exhortations of his daughter Caroline and moved into a retirement village but he hates it and he despises all the other ‘inmates’, all moving inexorably towards the annihilation of aged care, and death.  (He’s only 69!) And as we read on, we realise  that the way he has quarantined himself from any relationships in the village is exactly what he has done throughout his life, even in his own home…

His wife, Martha, is dead, but Wilson’s pen makes her a lively character through Fred’s memories.  Based on his experience with the evidently long-suffering Martha, Fred is fond of making generalisations about women, and his default mode is criticism.  But there is much more to Fred than being a ‘crusty old gent’, and before long the reader is puzzling about what’s gone wrong in his relationship with Caroline, and about what might have happened to his son.  Since the narrative offers only Fred’s perspective we soon realise that he is suppressing his thoughts so much that often he cannot even mention the boy’s name.  And in his loneliness he is starting to lose his grip on reality:

Stalked by the ghost of his own unoriginality.  Every day it was the same.  He woke up – if he had slept at all – with an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach, and the distinct sense that there was something obscure, malevolent and obsessive lying in wait for him, ready to ambush him when he was at his weakest.  Thoughts were ghosts.  They were zombies.  They wafted about in the white heat and dark stillness of St Sylvan’s Retirement Village, tapping on windows, whispering forgotten lines, staging scenes that were supposed to have been deleted from the script long ago. (p.93)

Those thoughts and memories are starting to reveal his own shortcomings to Fred, and he doesn’t like it.  The hoard of modernist furniture was not exactly ‘family-friendly’:

He tried not to dwell upon the unease he felt as he set the bottom chair on top and shook out the plastic tarp he used to protect them.

‘Do not stand on that couch, Callum! How many times have I told you!’

‘Caroline, get that hot cup off that marble table!  Use cork mats!’

‘You’re not planning on getting out those paints on my marble, are you?’

He watched Martha picking up dirty cups, scrambling for the coasters, wiping up the spills, shaking her head, tightening her lips,, trying to juggle the insatiable, imperious needs of her children with the demands of her husband’s precious things. (p.60)

But Martha is obviously no doormat.  She was a decisive woman who clearly just gave up on trying to break through Fred’s barriers and went her own way about things.  Describing their marriage as a delicate imbalance of power, she dealt with the practical and emotional fallout of issues that arose, and one of the strengths of this novel is the way in which the author structures Fred’s reassessment of where that marital power lay.

A chance event introduces Fred to his neighbour, Jan, a woman he has studiously avoided because (a) she keeps budgies in cages and he despises her for that, and (b) without ever having spoken to her he has constructed a persona for her that conforms to all his prejudices about women.  I couldn’t help thinking of the old maxim, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, when Fred overcomes his reservations and accepts Jan’s invitation to join him for a home-baked pie.  But Jan isn’t looking to entrap a new bloke, she’s a very independent woman, and she’s just interested in company.  And while ordinary hunger made Fred risk the noise of the budgies, what he finds to his astonishment is that Jan’s forthright way of confronting his silences makes him articulate issues he has suppressed for decades.

The novel is well-paced.  Fred has been a self-centred bully for decades, and he doesn’t suddenly start blurting out his problems to a virtual stranger.  Some of what we learn about him comes from their (often droll) dialogue, and some of it from Fred’s newly-focussed introspection.  As the novel progresses, the mystery of his son’s tragedy is unveiled  and the childhood trauma that has marred Fred’s life is gradually revealed.  (No, not sexual abuse.)

Is Fred capable of redemption?  You have to read the book to find out.

One of the delightful things about this book is the images that are sprinkled among the pages: bridges with soaring arches, the Wassily chair with its tubular construction.  Fred can’t look at a Zimmer frame without pondering the structural forces in its design but there is no need to Google Shukhov’s Tower, you can see it right there in the book.  More poignant are the images of extinct creatures: Caroline in London is preparing an exhibition about extinction and the egg we see on the front cover is part of her quest for a loan exhibit, but there are also quaint images reminding us of the loss of the quagga, the American bison and the auk.

I really liked this book, but don’t take my word for it, you can read an extract at the UWAP website.

Author: Josephine Wilson
Title: Extinctions
Publisher:  UWAP (University of Western Australia Press), 2016
ISBN: 97817425888988
Review copy courtesy of UWAP.

Available from Fishpond: Extinctions or direct from UWAP.





  1. Now I have to see if I can find this.


    • Maybe Santa will get you one?


      • It’s all up to me.. it’s released here at the end of the month.


  2. Now I just had to get a copy of this from the library given your opening paragraph! The library has ordered a copy so I hope I am first in line so I can enjoy it over Christmas.


    • Excellent! *sulk* My library doesn’t let me reserve books that they’ve ordered, only favourite them so hopefully I don’t forget them.


      • Well, my library doesn’t tell me where I am in the list so I have no idea how long the wait is. It makes it a bit hard to manage – I can wait for books for 3 months and then get 5 in a week.


        • I can relate to that, I’ve got five at the moment and no time to read them!


  3. Haha, Lisa, I can barely keep up with blogs let alone read actual books in the silly season. I wish I *could* not let this slip under the radar but I fear it will unless some extra hours suddenly appear between now and Christmas. (I have one, sometimes 2 Christmas events every day this week until Friday when we fly to Melbourne for Len’s aunt’s 90th and a quick catch up with the kids, before returning home early the following week when brother and family will already be here and said kids will arrive soon after. Life is just too busy!)


    • Pop it in your Goodreads wishlist?


      • Oh Lisa good idea but I never use that … wish lists, which I have tried, just become another list that I never get to! I have so many books here (as I know you do too, but I just feel continually overwhelmed without adding to them virtually!) You are made of stronger stuff than I when it comes to getting through your books – or I am just torn in too many directions – so I just muddle through catching as catch can!


  4. I enjoyed the extract, it is very well written. I hope I’m not on such a well signposted pathway to extinction – Independent/Supported Living/High Care – in four years time when I’m Frederick’s age.


    • Ha ha, me too. I’m not going in any retirement village, they’re going to carry me out of my place in a box and I don’t care if the weeds are ten miles high and the place is festooned with cobwebs!


  5. […] Josephine Wilson: Extinctions, see my review […]


  6. […] can read my review here, but better still, go get yourself a copy and read the book […]


  7. […] for Philip Salom’s Waiting for this year’s Miles Franklin when it was won by Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions but #Tongue-in-cheek I reminded him that although I loved Waiting and thought it was an important […]


  8. […] Wilson is the winner of the award for 2017, for her novel Extinctions (see my review) but there were some fine nominations as well.  Links are to the judges’ reports at James […]


  9. […] Extinctions by Josephine Wilson (see my review) […]


  10. […] good at picking Miles Franklin winners.  Still, I was pleased to see that Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions won the […]


  11. […] are 80 authors over 50 events, including Josephine Wilson (author of the Miles Franklin winning Extinctions); Enza Gandolfo (author of Swimming and a new novel called The Bridge which I have just finished […]


  12. […] Josephine Wilson (author of the Miles Franklin winning Extinctions); […]


  13. […] with Sherryl Clark, chatting about the Miles Franklin-winning Extinctions. As you know if you read my review, I loved this novel so it was a real treat to hear Josephine talk about it in depth, bringing my […]


  14. […] Jolly, Sydney Review of Books (here) Lisa, ANZLitLovers (here) Janine, The Resident Judge […]


  15. […] Lisa (ANZLitLovers) reviewed it of course when it came out. […]


  16. […] The Hand That Signed the Paper), and otherwise trustworthy bloggers (see here for Whispering Gums, here for ANZ LitLovers, and here for The Resident Judge of Port Phillip), I […]


  17. […] regarding multiculturalism and migrants. 2017’s winner, Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions (Lisa’s review), starts with ageing, but encompasses a wide range of “extinctions” including, I […]


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