I read Extinctions by Josephine Wilson over the weekend. It’s the latest winner of Australia’s most prestigious literary award, the Miles Franklin, and certainly meets the award’s criteria of being distinctly Australian – presenting Australian life in any of it’s phases. Extinctions portrays a few days in the life of Fred Lothian, a retired academic who has recently lost his wife and has a difficult relationship with his two children. While living in a retirement village unit so cramped with vestiges of his former life that he can barely move, a few incidents compel Fred to remember certain moments from his own life, and a series of vignettes slowly reveal the somewhat tragic and complicated details of Fred’s relationships with his family.
I really enjoyed this novel and couldn’t put it down, partly due to the fact that I longed for some self awareness from our patriarchal protagonist. When self-awareness starts to come to Fred’s unreliable narration, however, it’s incredibly confronting and heartbreaking. Josephine Wilson has done an excellent job of portraying the way the human mind works when it pushes something away that ultimately must be addressed.
This is a novel about growing older, and the years between one significant stage of your life ending and the limbo you dwell in as you wait for dependency and advanced age to set in. But it is also a novel about memory, grief and loss, and about personal and cultural identity. I have intentionally not said much here about what is actually revealed as the novel progresses, because I think Wilson has done a masterful job of slowly sharing the details of Fred and his daughter Caroline’s story. The theme of extinction and being the last of your kind is very lightly woven through this novel in a way that I think makes it as relevant to our living now in the Anthropocene age, and while the 20th century looms large in this novel, this is very much a novel for Australia’s 21st century. As the Miles Franklin judges said, this is a novel that is deeply compassionate, but also unapologetically intelligent.
If you enjoyed reading the 2017 Miles Franklin Winner, Extinctions, you may like some of the following reads for their unreliable narrators and focus on the often complicated but deeply significant stage of life that is old age.