The story begins on an unbearably hot day. The protagonist, retired and recently widowed Professor Frederick Lothian looks up from the death notices he’s been perusing in the paper. Looking out of the window of his small villa in a retirement village, he watches a neighbour from a nearby unit hobbling on a Zimmer frame to the communal dining room.
Nearby, a cistern flushes and fills. Two pages later, we read,
‘He heard the metallic thunk of an instant gas hot-water system. An aged and decrepit body would be stepping across the flat tiled floor into a shower cubicle…reading itself the brisk application of liquid soap to crepey flesh.’
Frederick dislikes the proximity of so many old people, whose only escape will be into high-care or death. He blames his current unhappiness on his daughter, Caroline.
According to the back-cover blurb, ‘Extinctions is a novel about all kinds of extinctions – natural, racial, natal and personal – and what we can do to prevent them.’
Unable to let go of the past, Frederick surrounded himself in his new home with the furniture and trappings of the house he shared with his late wife Martha. Nothing has been properly placed or unpacked.
Against this background, Josephine Wilson uses Frederick’s memories of his failures (extinctions?) during his sixty-nine years to tell his story. Relationships with his wife, friends, students all come under harsh scrutiny. His relationship with his adopted daughter becomes clearer and his guilt about his abandonment of his head-injured son.
As an eighty year old myself, I’m learning that there are developmental tasks required of old people, just as there are for everyone from birth. They include coming to terms with retirement from active work life. Another task is to mourn the loss of loved ones and the loss of one’s physical integrity.
The need to review one’s life with all its failures and mistakes appears essential for many people. For some, this task is undertaken deliberately or systematically, through writing a life story or through letting go possessions. Done well, the result can be peace, coming to terms with one’s mortality and perhaps gaining wisdom. If not undertaken, the result can be depression and anxiety or even despair.
These are the tasks that Frederick undertakes, less systemically, in Extinctions and we do not know the outcome.
The novel is written from the third person point of view, but what makes it particularly poignant is the skillful way in which Josephine Wilson, like Jane Austen, writes free indirect speech as a way of moving the story forward in an intimate manner.. This way of writing is often difficult for an inexperienced writer, and difficult (and perhaps off-putting) for a reader who is unfamiliar with it. Once understood, the rewards are clear.
Free indirect speech is the trick of writing what a character is thinking without showing which thoughts belong to the author and which belong to the character. In direct speech, the author uses words like, ‘he thought’ and ‘he said’. Free indirect speech allows the author to write with direct access from the consciousness of the character.
The book contains many photographs. They did not add to my enjoyment of the story but I think that was due to some laziness on my part. Apart from this, I thoroughly enjoyed Extinctions on many levels, and can recommend it