Extinctions, by Josephine Wilson, won the 2015 Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, and I am not surprised: it is an utterly absorbing novel that I was sorry to finish.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
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Press), 2016
Review copy courtesy of UWAP.