Josephine Wilson has won the 2017 Miles Franklin award for her novel Extinctions. Judging panel chair Richard Neville stated Wilson’s novel, “explores ageing, adoption, grief and remorse, empathy and self-centredness”. It takes a skillful and thoughtful novelist to pack so many “big issues” into a single narrative, but Wilson has achieved it, and the novel has won considerable recognition.
The Miles Franklin is, arguably, the apogee of Australian literary prizes, and Extinctions is a worthy addition to the list of earlier winners, among a worthy bunch of shortlisted entries.
The novel began its successful life when it was just a manuscript, and won the inaugural Dorothy Hewett Award in 2015. Since then it has been enthusiastically reviewed by critics and peers: in the Sydney Morning Herald (by Dorothy Johnston), in the Sydney Review of Books (Roslyn Jolly), in the Australian Book Review (Gillian Dooley), and in pretty well every other review outlet in Australia. It was featured on the ABC Books and Writing show and Wilson has fronted up to a number of literary festivals. I’m confident Extinctions will be set on Australian literature courses across the country.
Wilson has nailed key anxieties and preoccupations that characterise the current moment. Ageing, of course, thanks to the population bulge; cultural loss, especially for members of the Stolen Generations; environmental crisis associated with the Anthropocene (the age in which human impacts have come to dominate Earth); and the conflicts that are at the heart of storytelling – in this case, within the family, and with the self.
The central character, Fred Lothian, is a retired academic engineer, whose specialisation is concrete and Modernist design. He finds himself widowed, estranged from his daughter, avoiding his seriously brain-injured son. He is a damaged and dissatisfied man, hiding in his retirement villa, where every inch of space is cluttered with the material objects he has not been able to discard.
Wilson observes and records all this with a cool eye, and records too the distress, anxieties and ethical struggles faced by the other characters, particularly Fred’s daughter, Caroline. An adopted child (“of course she wasn’t really stolen”, says Fred. “We adopted at the end of that period”), she doesn’t feel able to name herself as Aboriginal, knows she resembles no one in her circle, and fears she is recognised by no one. Compounding this emotional burden, she is researching species extinction for an exhibition she is preparing.
The redeeming element is Jan, Fred’s neighbour at the retirement village. She is, effectively, the positive side of the coin, the mirror of both Fred and Caroline. Her warmth, her direct engagement with Fred’s obdurate misery, and the clarity of her understanding begin to shake loose some of the accreted history around the other characters.
“In the end”, reads the preface to Extinctions, “all is allegory”. But allegory has material effects, and the stories we tell ourselves, and the connections we draw within those stories, have the capacity to lead us to or away from extinction. For much of the book, and reflected in the drawings and other images scattered through it, extinction seems the inevitable conclusion.
Let me give Jan the last word, because she delivers what seems to me the coda to the narrative. Watching a child playing on a beach, she reflects: “At that moment, anything was possible”. As the novel draws to its conclusion, that more hopeful premise seems true.