Thoughts: Extinctions, by Josephine Wilson

A contemporary Australian novel that I positively raced through, after the intensity of Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, though that doesn’t mean it was light or breezy reading.

Pretty detailed spoilers ahead, usual warnings apply.

I liked this one on the whole, but there were a few things that didn’t quite connect for me. I’m not sure if I’d say they made the experience worse necessarily, but it didn’t feel complete, in some ways.

Extinctions is a story about an unlikeable old man in a retirement village, basically. He reminisces about his life, he’s unhappy with where he is, he’s ferociously aloof and keeps a distance from everyone, refusing to answer phone calls or speak to any of his neighbours. He considers his closest friend in the retirement village to be a man that he nods at sometimes, and genuinely seems to believe that this constitutes a two-way friendship understood by the two of them.

The characters and their lives are drawn in wonderful detail, in all their flaws and incomplete perspectives, lapses in memory, self-delusions. Even the beginning, which consists, as many stories of this kind often seem to, of Frederick sitting in his villa going through an extremely fine-detailed set of motions while thinking about the past, was interesting enough to keep me going. Wilson pulls out the reveals (I don’t know if you can call them twists) at just the right moments – his daughter is adopted, his son is not dead – to widen and fill in the picture. The nuances of each character, how their foibles and failures stem from their own pasts and personalities, how their well-intentioned actions backlash in ways they didn’t expect, are done very sensitively, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions without being railroaded by the author’s opinions.

So what didn’t work for me?

There are images scattered throughout the text, photos of bridges and famous chair designs, blueprints and extinct animals, that are very interesting but didn’t add much to the story for me. Similarly, the threads of Fred’s vintage furniture and Caroline’s extinction-themed museum exhibit felt like they were meant to be very significant, but I never quite managed to square them with the other themes of the story. Fred’s life as an engineering professor, the line between watching and doing, the likening of being adopted to being the first/last of your kind… these things were all there, but they were both strong enough to catch attention and not strong enough to really stand on their own. Weirdly the title didn’t quite work for me either, like an ill-fitting lid.

I was never quite sure who the main character was, either, or what the main-main thread was. Fred got the most time, and his life links all the others, but in other ways it felt like Caroline was actually where the meat of the story lay, and she didn’t quite get enough time.

But really, all told, I liked it. There was a lot to think about and get stuck into, and a lot of big issues were explored and touched on really well. The parts that felt unbalanced didn’t detract from most of the experience.

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