The Book Group and Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions

Josephine Wilson, Extinctions (UWA Publishing 2016)

Before the meeting: Extinctions won the 2017 Miles Franklin Award, and has been widely well received. I hated it.

I realised how much I was hating it when on page 16 the main character, grumpy and defensive seventyish white man Frederick Lothian, describes a piece of knitting as ‘abandoned in medias res‘: my inner pedant came out all guns blazing. That’s syntactically incorrect, it shouted: in medias res doesn’t mean ‘in the middle of things’, as Frederick (who has been studying Latin) and presumably the author think, but ‘into the middle of things’ – you can’t abandon something into something. I was being unfair: it’s a genuinely trivial matter and anyhow English usage has long since left the Latin behind. If I’d been enjoying the book, even moderately, I wouldn’t have noticed.

Out of respect for the Book Group, the Miles Franklin judges (though we shouldn’t forget The Hand That Signed the Paper), and otherwise trustworthy bloggers (see here for Whispering Gums, here for ANZ LitLovers, and here for The Resident Judge of Port Phillip), I persisted.

There are a lovely couple of sentences on page 164:

Some young lads were tossing a Frisbee, diving after it and landing heavily in the sand. They came up laughing and dusting off their legs, A thin, stringy boy with a head of dark hair and a little nub of fluff under his lip leapt sideways and missed. He met the ground not as you would meet an adversary – hardened and eager to hurt – but like a member of the family who had been gone just a little too long: a quick embrace, an easier release.

And in the final movement there’s a scene of genuine power in which a father slaps his tiny son.

I mention those moments for two reasons: first to prove that I did read on, and second to demonstrate that I wasn’t committed to hating the book. But committed or not, I did hate it. I really I don’t want to spend time spelling out why, though a number of my friends have put up with rants and readings-aloud. enough to say that it seemed to me at one stage that you could pick a passage at random and I’d hate something in the content or the expression. If you want to know more about the book, I recommend any of the blogs I’ve linked to above. They’re not written by defensive and grumpy old white men and may be more dependable than mine.

At the meeting: I arrived intending to keep my mouth shut because there’s nothing worse than having someone spraying vitriol at a book you’ve just read and loved, and I was trying to be open to the possibility that the book is actually OK, but just sparked/triggered something in me. (Another chap from the book had told me a couple of weeks before the meeting that he too had hated the book – it had made him unaccountably angry. Being morally superior to me, he reread it. I was looking forward to what he had to say at the meeting.)

We did spend an unusual amount of time discussing the food (which was excellent – everyone had bought something), the recent election result, and the rights and wrongs of a Sydney multi-millionaire sporting celebrity who broke a contractual undertaking not to speak ill of LGBTQI people and lost his job because of it. But we also had a spirited, amiable and enlightening conversation about the book.

I didn’t succeed in keeping my mouth shut for long, and my friend who had been made unaccountably angry didn’t say much more than that the book didn’t make him angry the second time. A couple of people had enjoyed it a lot (though one who had really loved it couldn’t be there, alas). No one hated it as much as I did, and I did get called a grumpy old man in a tone that suggested I identified defensively with Frederick (a charge I don’t absolutely deny).

The architects and modernist design aficionados among us enjoyed the presence of those elements, including the illustrations scattered throughout. No one could tell me what these photos added, except that they pleasantly broke up the pages of text. Clearly, though, the book had stuck a chord in some, as a number of members spoke in a heartfelt way of how adoption, old-people’s homes, work-family balance had figured in their lives. Oddly, I felt that the plot tensions were satisfactorily resolved in the final stages, whereas some people who liked the book were left dissatisfied. I was the only one who read out a passage – the one quoted above – though one chap read out a number of phrases that he considered beautifully turned (I didn’t, but there’s no point arguing about such things).

Extinctions is the twenty-fourth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. My copy was a library book.

6 responses to “The Book Group and Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions

  1. Haha Jonathan, as I’ve said before I love you book reports.

    In my defence, should I want to defend myself which I’m not sure I do, the review on my blog is not by me, and in fact, Amanda did have a couple of equivocations as I recollect. (I haven’t gone back and read it.) I did love your comment that “I did get called a grumpy old man in a tone that suggested I identified defensively with Frederick (a charge I don’t absolutely deny).” You now make we want to read the book and find out a bit more about this Frederick.

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    • I just got into trouble for being mealy mouthed in this post, which wasn’t my intention. I just don’t see the point in going on about something I have no sympathy for. My overwhelming sense, certainly of the first section of the book, is that while the narrative is technically from the point of view of Frederick, it actually reads as if written by someone who can’t stand him. One of the other members of the group put it more succinctly: he’s very narrowly presented. We only get the things about him that drive the women in his life nuts. This can be justified by arguing that he’s been depressed since the death of his wife and his mind is preoccupied with what was wrong with their marriage – mostly blaming her, but for the reader that amounts to going over all the ways he’s been a shit. And I just never believed in him. I didn’t believe in his interiority – or that of any other characters, though I could see what they were meant to be.

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      • I didn’t find it mealy-mouthed. You just said what you thought, without going on too much about it. However, you have me intrigued…though I suspect this book has passed me by. My next post will be my latest reading group book.

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  2. It’s good to realise Jonathan that you don’t enjoy every single book you read – because I had similar feelings for a book recently reviewed positively by you and others which had me – like you in this instance – made uncomfortable by matters not ringing true – no matter the overall importance of the book to many people. It had a lad who was a corporal described as an officer and there were characters, apparently Jewish – engaged in things clearly not-Jewish. It lost me. I decided it was a kind of poetry – almost a thing only half-seen – “through a glass darkly” as it were – and I left it at that. Though I enjoyed the Mt Wilson references. There you are.

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  3. I absolutely love this review: I had a good chuckle about you being a ‘grumpy old man’ surrendering to your an inner pedant! And I love the fact that your good intentions to keep your mouth shut failed so comprehensively:)

    Where would we be if we all loved the same books, eh?

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  4. Pingback: Classics and Literary Round-up: June 2019 | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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