Extinctions (2016), the 2017 Miles Franklin Award winner is an exemplar of that award’s recent preference for safe, middle-brow novels that touch all the liberal bases. Author, Josephine Wilson is a fiftyish writer and academic “who lives in Perth, Western Australia with her partner and two children” – one of whom is adopted according to her interview with the Guardian.
She has written the story of a week in the life – with lots of backstory – of a 69 year old retired Engineering professor, Frederick Lothian and his largely estranged daughter, Caroline. The point of view is mainly that of Frederick, though sometimes of Caroline and once (I think), of Jan, Frederick’s next-door neighbour in the retirement village; and so is limited by Frederick’s almost total lack of self awareness.
Frederick is a widower; his wife, Martha has died of cancer a couple of years earlier; and he also has a son, Callum. Caroline, it turns out, is adopted and Indigenous, too young to be of the Stolen Generation, but pointing in that direction, removed from a disappointingly stereotypical Indigenous druggie mother who eventually dies due to domestic violence.
This is a story that connects to me in all sorts of ways but which, in the end, mostly fails to connect. Most reviewers have seen this as Frederick’s story, but it is not. This is a woman’s story, a woman attempting to understand her father’s generation. And just as Wilson is probably a decade older than Caroline, so Frederick is clearly a decade older than his given age. I will be 68 in a couple of months, will work for at least the next five years, I get around on my bike, and, until recently, competed in long distance ocean swims. Frederick is in a retirement village, his body is failing, and he refuses ongoing academic work.
The villa was a bridge between his real life, which had ended, and death, which waited behind a wall of paperbarks on the other side of the quadrangle. He had finished accumulating experiences, and now he was shuffling around in the past, peeking inside boxes and then closing them quickly. Moving to St Sylvan’s had cemented his fate.
Wilson touches lightly on Perth, her and my home town, and I appreciate that. Later as Frederick remembers dragging his family out into the Wheatbelt to stargaze, the locations become more specific; and in the final act Caroline is in Menzies, north of Kalgoorlie, getting in touch with her indigenous family – which, as you might expect of me, is a story I believe Wilson should not have attempted – Wilson, away from home territory, makes a small mistake and has Caroline advised to watch out for kangaroos while driving at night when the real danger in that area is unfenced cattle. And, if you want my advice, don’t drive in the outback at night, at all.
The other connections? I still think of myself as an ‘engineer’, despite never getting beyond first year. It was the only profession ever considered for me during all my school years, and by the time I arrived at Melbourne I was a natural fit for its boys-own culture – 240 boys in first year and one woman who left at the end of the year to study science. And my professors might be pleased to learn, the one lesson I remember, turning moments, has been of use to me throughout my working life.
Frederick is distant and controlling, he chooses to live in Perth to put distance between himself and a bullying father in England. He meets Martha in the US and she gives up her studies and the chance of career to follow him to Australia.
When he met Martha he knew nothing of families, and very little of love. A family was something to fear, like a long, dark tunnel cutting through a mountain. Who knew if you would come out the other side alive?
Frederick reports to us what Martha has said to him, without comprehension. Milly (ex Mrs Legend) would understand that! His unit, and before that his home, is full of collectibles, which the children are NOT TO TOUCH. Been there! I hope I was less anal, though I still don’t let anything go.
I have both a daughter who was adopted out and a daughter whose biological father I helped her find. Near the end, we discover that Martha had refused to let Caroline as a teenager have her birth mother’s details, which I didn’t find consistent with all the other ways Martha opposed Frederick.
When Frederick finally gains some insight in his old age, he is too willing to forgive himself. That was my father’s position, and mine too I think.
In the retirement village, Frederick holds himself aloof, regarding the other residents with scorn. The week or so of the story begins with him watching, allowing, another resident to die; Jan, his gregarious neighbour, insists on him talking; her scorn at his self-serving answers causing him to begin coming to terms with all he has suppressed; we discover he has a son who has been in care, incommunicative for years with brain damage, Frederick unable to make himself visit, even after Martha’s death; Frederick the cause of his son’s accident, Martha and Caroline both despising him for it, though it’s clear he doesn’t realise.
The backstory element is busy – Frederick’s relationship as a boy with his domineering father; his and his father’s involvement in the death of his younger brother; his ‘best friend’ Ralph; Martha’s increasing dissatisfaction and independence; her affair (which we learn only from Caroline); Jan’s story as she becomes more involved in Frederick’s life, becomes the catalyst for some very sudden changes.
But in the end, the novel has three weaknesses, the last of which is IMO fatal. Frederick’s agedness, already discussed; it is never clear why Martha stayed married to him; and we are meant to believe at the end that Frederick has seen the light and been redeemed. He is of course too like me (and my father) for me to find him likeable, but I did not even find him believable.
Josephine Wilson, Extinctions, UWA Publishing, Perth, 2016. Audiobook: Brilliance Audio, read by William McInnes (sounding in places very like Jack Thompson, the voice of Australia)