The winner of the 2017 Miles Franklin Award is, to my mind, a novel of few merits, with its central protagonist, retiree Professor Fred Lothian, deeply repellent.
Fred is a man who, a recent widower, lives in a retirement village in suburban Perth in Western Australia. Whilst not exactly a recluse, he is an antisocial misery, consciously determined to be a grump. His two children are each in their own way lost to him. But then unexpected events around him force Fred to re-evaluate his values, identify his shortcomings and find some kind of redemption when the opportunity arises.
At least that’s what the writer would like us to think. But by then, it’s all a little too late and Fred’s redemption is too little, too late – certainly for his wife, Martha. No matter how many times the self-centred retired professor now recognises he should have helped chop the capsicums (a metaphor for a total lack of involvement in family life, preferring to close the home-office door to focus on his world-expertise in cement and concrete), their marriage, in the last few years, was not a happy one. Himself the scarred product of a dysfunctional Scottish family, Fred has contributed directly or indirectly to the destruction of his immediate family. Martha, it turns out, had an affair, Callum is confined to permanent care and his daughter Caroline, herself an academic, struggles with her own identity: she is indigenous, adopted as a young, abused child. Compounding her sense of uncertainty is the fact she is researching species extinction for a planned exhibition.
Past events of Fred’s life come to the fore as he faces the initially unwanted attention from Jan, his neighbour at the retirement village. Gregarious, Jan herself is involved in a family struggle as she looks to take on the legal guardianship of her five year-old grandson. It is she who forces the damaged Fred to address his past.
But why Extinctions? On one immediate level, it is only too apparent – Caroline’s forthcoming exhibition is an overt and obvious pointer. But there are so many strands to the concept – the end of the Lothian family line, the idea of the family unit itself, cultural loss et al. “In the end, all is allegory” reads the preface as relationships, knowledge, attitudes and emotions change, with Jan the catalyst. But so what? Very disappointing.