Book Review: Extinctions by Josephine Wilson
'Destiny is an easy god,' he said. 'It relieves you of the of choice, and the tragedy of having no choice at all.' He smiled at her. 'How's that? Am I profound enough for you?'
I've never read a book like this before. It's very out of my typical tastes, but how better to start a local online book club than to start with a local award-winner? Reading Extinctions is like travelling into the mind of the elderly person you hate, or at least this is what it was like for me.
I’ve also never read a book like this before, meaning my copy is dog-eared, blistered, bent, and scribbled-in like no other book I own (for the time being). I doubt Caroline would approve: "You would never do that now – mark a specimen like that. You would never sully the mute purity of nature with the indelible mark of the human hand" (p.138). Whoops. I underlined that sentence, wrote "like what I’m doing!" in the margin, and dog-eared the bottom corner of the page to remember it later.
Not all my notes are positive, but this reflects more on the characters (who are vivid and irritating at times) than on the author. While the protagonist Frederick Lothian is somewhat sensitive, he is not sensitive to others; he laughs louder than his company to reassert his masculinity, he it perpetually confused by the emotions of his wife (and other people in general), and he's befuddled by his daughter's ability to think; "Caroline was thinking very deeply, and it annoyed the hell out of Frederick" (p.34). He is impatient, unsympathetic, selfish, self-important, and at only at the end of his life does he seem to grasp the concept of personal responsibility. His way of life is proper, he’s inconsiderate, and even at the end doesn't redeem himself quite the way he thinks he does. But it isn't all about Fred. "Fred could not bear it when women cried. It was so - demanding." (p.105). Any depart from Fred's internal monologue in this book was a blessing.
The first gay character Paul only lived for a page before being killed off by AIDS. Fred and Jan both seem incessant on categorising the behaviours specific to men and women, "I just can't imagine a woman collecting this furniture [...] it seems so unlike a woman", says Jan. "It was unnerving to have tears in his office", thinks Fred (p. 45). "You know what women are like," (p.75). There are at least a dozen pages where he makes a remark like "women were so easily distracted" (p.94), which I have underlined and written some variation of "UGH" in the border. While I don’t like it, the novel doesn’t depart from realism – small, secret, and private details that are affected by the world at large, and Wilson captures Perth perfectly. I can’t describe just how she does that.
But this book deals with a lot. Endings, beginnings, grief, love, race, and the feeling of disappearing, primarily with change and the passage of time. With monsters. Even in the golden years of his life, Fred is still in a transitional state. He has regrets he’s harboured—in most cases, rightfully so—and memories and reflections he returns to. Throughout the story we see him evolve, from a man obsessed with modernism and design, a cold academic with an affinity for architecture and concrete. So much concrete.
The first Book "Columns" deals with memory, the second, "Bridges", with history and its passage, personal history. "That was another thing he couldn't stand," writes Wilson, "the way everyone acted as if the past was golden" (p.90). I agreed with Fred there. He is surrounded by concrete, and eventually you pick up that he's sinking into it, until he meets Jan. Then he becomes on edge, "like a setter with a bird in the bush" (p.68). His old architectural allegories disappear into animal ones. Nothing is ever enough for our protagonist, and that's what simultaneously makes him infuriating and nuanced at the same time.
In his vulnerable moments with Jan in the car, we see him turn to animals. He thinks of the dolphin waiting for him in the ocean, the girls from the limousine who behave like giraffes and camels, and his feeling of pathetic-ness is a feeling of "crawling across the floor like a cockroach" (p.178). Medical students "fussed around him, like ducks after stale bread" (p.234). A waiter wearing oyster-coloured pants turns into an oyster: "he caught the waiter’s eye and watched the oyster scuttle over for his empty flute and then swim off in the direction of the mermaid" (p.187). We get the sense that Fred is a lone survivor in a jungle, looking for civilisation and his oh-so-familiar friend, concrete.
But then, Wilson says, if we're going to look at animals, we have to look at where they come from (Book 3: "Eggs") and where they're going (extinct).
While it’s not my kind of book, maybe that’s the point. Young people are disillusioned with the elderly (though this book isn't only about them), either as a concept or as people, and that’s always been the way of things. Despite not always agreeing with the characters, I’ll return to Dylan Marron’s motto: "empathy is not endorsement". While I can’t endorse many of the characters’ beliefs or Fred’s obsessions with modernism, I can empathise that they come from times and places and pasts that I will never experience, and that the generations after ours will probably feel the same way towards us as we do to our predecessors. Maybe that’s a story that we should read, despite its inevitable ending.
I feel like there's more to discuss.
Some of my favourite quotes:
How is that that we live these lives of such intense detail, where moment to moment we have people we love all around us, and we have to act and think about and decide so many things, and then it is all gone? All that detail is lost, and we return to dirt. (p.34)
People will attach themselves to the most arbitrary of things. He knew that now. Attachment was not a logical business. (p.13)
Thinking had usurped sleeping, although you could hardly call it thought. Thinking was not supposed to be disconnected from the person doing it. (p.89)
Blind hope: could this be an incubator [...] not some egg abandoned on a cliff face, but something warm and alive, something that might, with care and attention - with what might even be called love - become a living thing? (p.118)
You could snap your fingers at one end of the galaxy and you'd hear it at the other. (p. 184)
She knew the history, and films like that ruin the truth, she told her friends; they overstate things, or fall short. But even then she had felt unsteady in her convictions. After all, what else can any story be, but too much, or not enough? (p.258)
How well do you think the themes of grief and loss were represented in the book?
This novel also deals with race, and its supposed 'extinction'. Do you think the book handles this subject well?
Share a favourite quote from the book below, and explain why.
Who was your favourite character?
Do the characters seem familiar, realistic, or grounded?
Do you think the book represents Perth well? Does the setting feel vivid?
Would you read another book by Josephine Wilson?
The blurb of my copy says: “Humorous, poignant and galvanising by turns, Extinctions is a novel about all kinds of extinction – natural, racial, national and personal – and what we can do to prevent them.” Do you agree that this sums up the novel properly?
Content Warnings (by page)
(p.38) - induced vomiting
(p.40-1) - eating disorder mention
(p.41) - heroin mention
(p.49) - racism and sexism mention, implied rape and abuse
(p.51) - implied rape and assault
(p.78) - heroin mention
(p.105) - child abuse
(p.158) - child abuse, domestic violence
(p.168) - alcoholism mention
(p.194) - child abuse mention
(p.220) - child abuse mention
(p.223) - child abuse mention
(p.263) - child abuse
(p.278) - murder, domestic abuse mention