I am very pleased to bring you another guest post by Amanda, for a book I’ve not managed to read yet, much as I’d like to: Josephine Wilson’s Miles Franklin Award winning novel, Extinctions.
I loved this book. I was really sorry when it ended. It’s the kind of novel you press into the hands of a good friend. If we lived in the same town I would drive over and lend it to you. [Thanks, Amanda, I wish you could!]
It comes with impressive credentials – Winner of the 2017 Miles Franklin Literary Award and the 2015 Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. I would never judge a book based on its awards – and putting those aside, Wilson has created an intelligent sensitive story, combining the personal and political with poignant and endearing characters.
I’ll give you a brief synopsis of the plot and a mention of some unique touches Wilson employs. Some reviews out there give away too much, which ruins the book’s unfolding narrative.
As implied by the title – the book deals with extinctions of all sorts – racial, national, natural and personal. Our protagonist is retired engineering professor Fred Lothian, father to Caroline and Callum, reluctant resident of St Sylvan retirement village, neighbour to Jan and desperately missing his deceased wife Martha. The first couple of chapters are a bit slow moving as we are introduced to Fred and in retrospect to Martha. But it picks up the pace quickly and indeed the ending did seem a bit rushed. The story is told mainly through balancing the present with Fred’s memories.
Wilson uses photos and drawings throughout the book to emphasise a point, which works very well. The photos are unique enough to create interest and have sufficient detail for a reader to divine meaning in addition to the narrative. She also likes quoting large paragraphs from other literature, ranging from Shakespeare to Wind in the willows. That I liked less, they seemed overdone and distracting. Some engineering terms are used as metaphors in numerous chapter titles.
Wilson is a master story-teller. She is excellent at creating suspense. She deftly manages humour and even in this poignant, serious tale it never seems out of place. You’ll find the most entertaining first date in literature in this book. Some writers let their characters meander aimlessly in the story, but Wilson was having none of that. She works her characters like draught horses. They are constantly flung at each other to challenge, chide, ameliorate and alleviate each other. She has a great ear for dialogue and parent-child dynamics. However, this is a political book and sometimes her characters’ conversations can seem didactic – with each taking an opposing view to prove that there is no absolute right or wrong in most matters. Also occasionally Wilson needs to stretch the plot twist to fit the story and even Fred admits that some events were highly coincidental.
Extinctions is full of beautiful sentences – there is a whole paragraph about the early years of educating a child. It’s too long to quote here, but you will recognise it when you get to it. With great writing I often wonder how much is autobiographical. I note in the afterword that both of Wilson’s parents and a mother–in-law passed away during the writing of the book. Also her father was an engineer.
What I liked most is Wilson’s message of hope – that before we all grow old and become extinct, it is never too late to make amends and make the world a better place for the ones we love.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) reviewed it of course when it came out.