The protagonist of Josephine Wilson’s award-winning novel Extinctions is Professor Frederick Lothian, a retired widowed academic and international expert on concrete and bridges. As a consulting engineer, he travelled the world advising on the most appropriate bridge for any situation and “would determine an appropriate method of spanning the chasm with a structure of logical simplicity and elegance”. Bridges are one of many significant metaphors for Wilson, and the first 60 pages of Extinctions is massively overengineered and bloated. The novel becomes more elegant as it progresses, though, and the ending is charming.
Fred is living in an independent villa in a Perth retirement village. He’s a great character; a narcissistic, cranky hoarder who is emotionally estranged from his daughter, Caroline, a museum curator, and neglects his son, Callum. He doesn’t look after himself, has no friends and the highlight of his day is reading the funeral notices in the newspaper. One day, he witnesses a fellow resident fall badly. Fred is shaken. Later, he meets Jan, a budgerigar-keeping widow next door. She has troubles of her own but she makes him reflect on his life, such as all the furniture he keeps. “How could he explain his loyalty to objects? Yes, his pieces were classics, but holding on to them was also some kind of penance, something to be endured, like crawling on your knees at the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima.” Is it too late for Fred, or can he change? As his self-awareness grows, he realises himself to be a monster. It’s not altogether an unwelcome thought – it fits his idea of penance.
There is great sensitivity and heart in this story of redemption and Wilson can be blackly funny. In one set piece, Jan and Fred find themselves unexpectedly eating at a posh degustation restaurant, slurping on champagne and bêche-de-mer gunkan sushi with chocolate-infused nori and a lemon ginger mousse while dissecting how their lives went off the rails.
Fred’s daughter has a perspective and a story of her own. Some of Caroline’s plot points are a little too tidy, but she’s a great character and could have easily carried a novel of her own.
Despite Fred’s advanced years, Extinctions is akin to a coming-of-age story. Will he mature into a good person? Wilson attempts too much, but Extinctions is a rich and humane novel peopled with compelling characters. LS
UWAP, 280pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 26, 2016 as "Josephine Wilson, Extinctions". Subscribe here.