At first, Extinctions by Josephine Wilson was a challenge to get into but after a few pages I grew accustomed to the narrative style and became engrossed. As a winner of the Dorothy Hewett Award in 2015 and of the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2017, it ‘had to be good’.
Fred Lothian, the central character through whom most of the story is told, is a difficult man – son, husband, father – caught up in mind warps that are unravelled as his life story is told in the space of a few days. ‘Extinctions’ in many shapes and guises are explored.
At a time in my life where, like many others, I’ve faced the death of a loved one, this obvious extinction is presented through the death of Fred’s wife, Martha. The wider community’s wish to grieve someone they knew is denied by Fred’s preference for a private funeral. He fails to see why strangers to him cared about his wife and is angered by what he perceives to be lack of knowing that he too, misses his wife. As in life, resolution is discoverable and, as the blurb states, Fred Lothian has the chance to build something meaningful for those who are still living and whom he loves.
A few years ago I turned a corner and wondered ‘how the hell did I get here’ while recalling my own father’s celebrations at sixty. It came as a profound shock to realise that life is incredibly fleeting. Like Maureen Helen mentions in her review of Extinctions, it is an opportunity to take stock and re-assess our lives and move forward not unlike Fred Lothian does when he is faced with the death of Tom, a fellow resident where he is living and in meeting Jan.
Jan is crucial to the story. She is a backstop to Fred’s rambling thoughts and actions and enables the story to shape itself towards comfortable, though open-ended resolutions.
It’s hard to grow old, thought Jan, to see the path narrow. We don’t how to manage so we act as if it’s unexpected, like an earthquake or a road accident.’ (p257)
Extinctions resonated with me. Acute awareness of the fragility of life is hammered home. It is challenging for loved ones who begin their demise into old age, or when they have change thrust upon them in life-changing accidents or when ill-health walks through the door. And it is challenging to walk alongside them. Subsequent limitations are to be lived with and small acts of kindness become paramount. In that period of adjustment and in the ongoing reality of irreversible changes depths of character, hitherto unknown, are tapped into. I’ve seen close family manage change admirably as they stumble forward.
Making good memories is a cliché one often hears these days. It is something we see in Fred’s belated re-connection with his son, showing that it is perhaps never too late to reach out or to do whatever one deems necessary within one’s own life.
I found the images scattered throughout Extinctions intriguing. It’s only the second time I’ve encountered the use of imagery in a novel, the first was Raymond Briggs YA novel, Mrs Peregrines Home for Peculiar Children. I appreciated their place after a concerted effort to understand what they added to the story.
Extinctions is comprehensively reviewed for its wider themes on several sites.