A stodgy, miserable, retired engineering professor in an Australian senior village finds that his world, seemingly in the last stages of crumbling into nothingness, is completely reinvented.
Winner of the 2017 Miles Franklin Literary Award, a prestigious Australian prize, Wilson's (Cusp, 2005) quiet, gorgeously put-together novel opens by introducing professor Frederick Lothian, a rather unlikable man spending what seems to be the last scene of his final act in a detestable "villa" into which he has stuffed the detritus of his life. A partial inventory: a tubular Breuer chair, a Braun turntable, Saarinen tulip chairs and matching oval table, a million memories of bridges, airport terminals, skyscrapers, and blueprints, the remains of a lifelong obsession with form and function. (Images of many of these things are reproduced in the text.) Also crowding the scene are unwashed dishes, abandoned meals, and more painful memories than it seems possible to bear, all founded on a childhood tragedy which remains buried until the end of the book. Having had a beautiful, kind, infinitely tolerant wife, Martha, and two fine children, Lothian has lost them all, Martha to death, his grown daughter and son in other ways. He has done everything possible to avoid meeting his neighbors, but whether he likes it or not, the green-eyed woman next door with the dozens of annoying pet birds is coming into his life. Jan is a fantastic character, and it will take all the wit, insight, patience, and, ultimately, exasperation she can muster to pry this old nut from his shell. The metaphorical layering with regard to extinctions—the ends of things—is beautifully accomplished, and a wide variety of other interesting matters—the treatment of women in engineering school and patriarchal families, of Aboriginals in Australian society, of old people in retirement villages—engages as well. The various sad backstory details about old deaths, betrayals, and other wounds are teased out slowly and patiently, but that momentum is no greater than the more uplifting one: the unforeseen, truly magical opening of possibilities for growth, change, reconciliation, happiness.
A really fine, deeply intelligent book with so much to think about and so much unexpected hope.