The Great Unexpected by Dan Mooney
Yet friendship blossoms between the men and, when Joel admits his thoughts of suicide, Frank offers to help him go out with a bang. Of course, as life finds its purpose, and the pair embark on secret excursions into the forbidden territory beyond the care home where they live, Joel is forced to reconsider whether he really wants to end it all right now. In fact, he’s forced to reconsider almost everything: the relationships currently available to him and the values he’s lived by in the past.
Dan Mooney’s second novel – the first, Me, Myself and Them, I reviewed last year – is a light story about friendship, masculinity, acceptance and society’s increased emotional literacy over time. Both main characters hide their fears and vulnerability: Frank’s beneath his swagger and Joel’s, less successfully, beneath his taciturn withdrawal. Particularly poignant is Frank’s account of the cruelty he experienced as a young gay man, and Joel’s discovery that he had been the type of person who would have contributed to his friend’s persecution.
But this is very much a young person’s account of late life and, for me, the humour was insufficient to justify the setting: a nursing home where trained nurses deliver breakfast in bed to people capable of getting washed and dressed independently, and where perfectly compos mentis residents aren’t allowed beyond the grounds because of a stroke two years before. When Joel, after much trepidation, sees a therapist, and a psychologist to boot – shame on you Martin for meeting a client in his bedroom – I hoped he might support the care team to provide a better balance for the residents between autonomy and protection, but Dan Mooney took his story in a different direction.
Published by Legend Press, who kindly provided my review copy, this novel will appeal to those who enjoy stories of redemption. For a couple of other novels about men contemplating suicide, see my post Time to end it all? Hotel Silence & The Zero and the One.
Extinctions by Josephine Wilson
Frederick Lothian, former professor of engineering, peruses the obituary notices in the local paper, surrounded by defunct electricals and beautifully designed modernist chairs. His daughter, Caroline, is furious that he hauled these impersonal items to his new home in a retirement village, but threw away her mother’s clothes soon after her death two years before. Although that might be the least of what she is angry about: Fred hasn’t been much of a father, or husband, or human being.
As he watches his neighbour shuffle his Zimmer frame through the midday heat, Fred reflects on the meaninglessness of his present life and errors of the past. But when his elderly neighbour collapses in the courtyard in front of his “unit”, and Jan, his loquacious neighbour on the other side, asks for help, Fred finds he can’t cut himself off from other people altogether, despite unplugging his phone.
Almost halfway through the novel, we leave Frederick in Australia and drop in on Caroline in London. With a degree in anthropology, she freelances as a curator, and is putting together an exhibition on ‘the drama of extinction’, and is hoping to persuade a museum in Aberdeen to loan an auk’s egg. She’s preparing to fly up to Scotland when a phone call from a care home leads to a change of plan.
Initially, I found it difficult to follow the story, which seemed too fragmented and with too many names dropped into the mix. But I came to love, greatly admire, the oscillation between past and present which, while not quite stream of consciousness, closely mimics the mind’s shifts from inside to outside and back.
Equally impressive is the way Josephine Wilson subtly slides in snippets of family history, taking us deeper into the story before we’re even aware we’ve been paddling in the shallows. Frederick’s transgressions are increasingly disturbing, but how could he have behaved any better when his own childhood was marred by abuse? Similarly, Caroline’s loneliness, and the grief and grievance behind it, becomes ever more poignant, alongside her attempts to make the best of the life she’s got.
With its sympathetic, but deeply flawed and wounded characters, Extinctions brings a refreshing honesty to family tragedy in a manner that’s somehow gloriously uplifting. This is also the story of the tragedy of the Australian nation, built on a white invasion that almost saw the extinction of the Aboriginal blacks, continuing the fictional saga that began for me with Salt Creek, with an update in A Long Way from Home. Personally, the photographs of buildings, bridges and artefacts don’t enhance the reading experience but that’s no reason why Josephine Wilson shouldn’t join Peter Carey on my 2018 favourites shelf. Thanks to Serpent’s Tail for my review copy.