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Extinctions is the second novel by Josephine Wilson, and the winner of UWA Publishing’s inaugural Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. Extinctions is concerned with the ways we take responsibility for our actions, and about how we need others in order to live. It will appeal to readers of literary fiction, particularly contemporary Australian fiction.
He hated the word ‘retirement’, but not as much as he hated the word ‘village’, as if ageing made you a peasant or a fool. Herein lives the village idiot.
Professor Frederick Lothian, retired engineer, world expert on concrete and connoisseur of modernist design, has quarantined himself from life by moving to a retirement village. His wife, Martha, is dead and his two adult children are lost to him in their own ways. Surrounded and obstructed by the debris of his life—objects he has collected over many years and tells himself he is keeping for his daughter—he is determined to be miserable, but is tired of his existence and of the life he has chosen.
When a series of unfortunate incidents forces him and his neighbour, Jan, together, he begins to realise the damage done by the accumulation of a lifetime’s secrets and lies, and to comprehend his own shortcomings. Finally, Frederick Lothian has the opportunity to build something meaningful for the ones he loves.
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.
Josephine Wilson was born in England and came to Australia in 1966. She is the co-author of the performance/theatre work The Geography of Haunted Places, and author of the novel Cusp. She has a PhD from UWA. She has reviewed for Realtime, ArtLink Magazine and for the West Australian, and is a board member for the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts. Josephine was announced as the winner of the inaugural Dorothy Hewett Award at a ceremony as part of the 2016 Perth Writers Festival.
‘The story progresses artfully and inexorably towards a conclusion that quietly resonates long after the book is over.’—the judges of the Dorothy Hewett Award.
Portia Lindsay’s review of Extinctions was first published on the Books+Publishing website:
Josephine Wilson was named the recipient of the inaugural Dorothy Hewett Award for her manuscript ‘Extinctions’. Chosen unanimously by the judges, that manuscript is now published by UWA Publishing as part of the prize. Frederick, a retired engineer in his sixties, has moved into an up-scale retirement village and is reflecting on his life, having resigned himself to a gradual crawl towards death. Life has other plans for him though, and this slow-burn narrative delves into ‘it’s never too late’ territory in a subtle and complex manner. Wilson is concerned with ideas of family and home, and how these concepts are not concrete and certainly not universal. Frederick is at times an unsympathetic protagonist and his narration—alternating between kind, remorseful, sexist and foolish—reveals snippets of a complex life full of memories and regrets. His daughter Caroline has her own perspective on family history and is set on a journey of her own. Despite a bleak past and alienated present, the story ultimately presents a hopeful future. Peppered with clever observations, the writing is sharp and the interactions in Extinctions are complex, building a rewarding narrative about being lost but ultimately getting found. A complex relationship-driven piece of literary fiction, Extinctions will appeal to readers of Alex Miller, Iris Lavell and Stephanie Bishop.
—Portia Lindsay is the general manager of the Mudgee Readers’ Festival
Extinctions has a dual narrative, one centering on a faintly unlikeable protagonist and the other on his more amenable daughter. How were you able to find such unique voices for these characters?
Like the father in my book, my father was an engineer. But my novel is fiction; the Lothian family is not my family. While my parents (who are both dead now) had to undergo the move to aged care, with all that entails, the novel is set in a different period to when I grew up. I rely a great deal on dialogue and interiority to develop my characters. I like the to and fro of characters. I wanted to write a damaged, deceitful, unknowing older man who is pressed into a situation where he realises he is a kind of monster. I wanted to capture a particular period and a type of family, the sort I did not belong to—comfortably academic, liberal, well meaning and well read. Martha, the mother in the story (who we know only through flashbacks) is influenced by second-wave feminism and is desperately trying to reconnect with her thwarted intellectual and emotion ambitions. For her, the adoption of an Aboriginal child is both a moral and ethical imperative, and an act of love. As the meaning of adoption begins to shift in Australia, and as the truth of forced removals comes to fore, both mother and daughter find themselves at a historical juncture. I have struggled the most with the daughter, Caroline. She is damaged both by her well-meaning mother, and her dismissive father. Yet she endures; she refuses to become a tragic figure.
In a fashion reminiscent of W G Sebald, Extinctions is interspersed with evocative photographs. How do these enhance the narrative?
The use of photographs was central to the development of the novel. It is true that I love Sebald, but also Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and Ann Carson’s Nox. I have worked in museums, and teach writing, and art and design history; I am fascinated by the way objects are dense and meaningful, and the way images and words can interact. Even with the explosion of the graphic novel and social media, it is sometimes assumed that words and things exist in different registers. I hope the images extend our sense of the way a story does not simply exist in the world of the novel, but is also about the world and the novel. Images can perhaps communicate many things that words have trouble saying.
The concept of ‘extinction’ is teased out in a number of different ways in the novel. Why was this a preoccupation?
I am aware that with the title of my novel I could be charged with grasping for ‘global relevance’! The plurality of the title is significant: Extinctions. There are many things to lose, at so many levels, and so many ways of losing them. I lost parents and friends during the time of writing. At the same time I had a young son, and then a second child. I have had to consider what it means to have a family, to be an older parent, to lose my parents. I believe our idea of family has to extend beyond the biological net. We have to reach out and take responsibility for our actions and our lives, and most of all, we must admit the degree to which we need others in order to live.
Read a sample chapter of the book here.
For your chance to receive one of 10 advance reading copies of Extinctions, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The first 10 people to respond will win a copy.
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