A review of Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann
‘Sometimes’, thinks the narrator of Ducks, Newburyport, ‘you feel just a microsecond of pure happiness’. I think we all know that feeling, and it’s one I had very often whilst reading Lucy Ellmann’s doorstopper novel. Happiness – fleeting, but unadulterated – when I read a sentence that was just perfect, when the book exactly captured my mood. And again and again I found myself marvelling at what Ellmann has succeeded in getting literature to do.
Published around a year ago and promptly shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Ducks, Newburyport has been talked about a lot, in ways both good and bad. It might have taken me a while to get round to, but I was pretty sure that I was going to like it from the start – I always have an eye out for something unusual, and if this doesn’t tick that box, I don’t know what does. Just shy of 1,000 pages (plus a long glossary of abbreviations at the end), Ellmann’s seventh novel is a stream of consciousness that takes us inside the mind of a mother of four living in Ohio; her thoughts narrated to us in one unbroken sentence punctuated with the constant refrain ‘the fact that’. Descriptions like this may be off-putting to some, but they fail to take into account the utter joy involved in this particular reading experience. For me, Ducks, Newburyport is not just about what it is. That’s brilliant in its own way, but far more important is how it made me feel.
Rumours about the novel abound, and in fact I have already told one small lie in this review – despite promising myself I wouldn’t – by claiming that it consists only of one unbroken sentence. Our narrator’s thoughts actually come interspersed with fragments of more standard prose chronicling the journey of a mountain lioness around rural Ohio, a side story whose significance only really becomes apparent towards the very end of the book. Other misleading information includes a tendency to describe the narrator simply as an ‘Ohio housewife’, which I suppose is technically true, but immediately sweeps aside the very important facts that a) she is a mother of four, and b) she runs a small business baking cakes and pies from home. The fact that people don’t seem to take either of these occupations seriously is a source of some concern for her, and together they make up no small part of the novel’s central action.
And action there is in Ducks, Newburyport – more than I had expected. ‘Action’ is maybe the wrong word here, implying as it does something fast-paced and exciting, but the fact is that despite its meandering pace and tone, things – even pretty dramatic ones – really do happen. I won’t say what they are, because that really would spoil the plot, such as it is, but anyone who thinks this novel is solely about baking pies and worrying is labouring under a misapprehension. Though truth be told, an awful lot of baking and worrying does go on, and this is where Ellmann’s genius lies.
It takes a little getting into, this unusual narrative style, but once I did I was absolutely hooked on what is a thoroughly unique way of building a character before the reader’s eyes. Never before have I read such a perfect approximation of what it is to be inside somebody else’s mind, with all its circuitous pathways of thought, random ideas, flashes of inspiration, external distractions and ability to think about more than one thing at once. Given that we are inside someone else’s head, nothing is ever fully explained – characters from the past, for instance, come into the narrative without warning – yet Ellmann is kind enough to slip us enough context that we can gradually build up a picture of our narrator’s pre-Ducks life. By the end of the novel we know her intimately and, like everyone in the world, ourselves included, she can be the source of irritation, amusement and perfect sense.
Ducks, Newburyport is a big novel and it’s difficult to accurately reflect its scope. As a literary exercise, it is a masterpiece, giving voice to a character in an unprecedented form that I for one found incredibly inspiring. Then there are the themes it tackles, of which there are almost too many to count. One of them is motherhood, which is written about from a refreshing angle – our narrator loves her children deeply but also finds them exhausting and frustrating, and because we are privy to her inner monologue there is a good deal of honesty in how she approaches family life. ‘The world seems indifferent to mothers’, she muses, an impression that is probably true. Yet by giving her to us as a narrator, the only eyes through which we are allowed to access this particular view of the world, Ellmann does much to dispense with that indifference. The individual mind – whoever it belongs to, however conventional or even boring some people might perceive that figure to be – is at the heart of this novel. And then there is America.
‘The whole country’s awash in guns and Bibles’ is a single quote that pretty accurately reflects our narrator’s continual musings on the USA, the country she lives in and which she views as nothing short of a disaster. Donald Trump, school shootings, water pollution and general environmental catastrophe, the expense of medical care, gun laws, the pressure on teenage girls and a sense of bewilderment in the face of popular culture are just some of the topics our narrator thinks about, returning to worry at them repeatedly – ‘I’m sure people haven’t always lived in such a constant state of alarm’. In some places the novel is eerily prescient, discussing police brutality (not a new topic, I know) and the possibility of a pandemic, and although the tone is more one of despair and worry, it taps into current political developments with a barely concealed fury. Ellmann is clearly angry about a lot of things, but I would not describe her outlook as bleak, as others have done. Concentrating so much on the small details does, after all, provide much scope for finding moments of immense beauty in everyday life. And instead of doom-laden, I saw Ducks, Newburyport as something more akin to a wake-up call – an indication that maybe the time for private worrying is over and we all need to open up a bit more.
As both a state-of-the-nation and state-of-the-individual novel, Ducks, Newburyport is uniquely perfect. I found the experience of reading it immersive and thoroughly rewarding – and what I haven’t mentioned yet is that it is also extremely funny. I’m usually a fairly impassive reader, despite what I might be feeling, but on many occasions this novel had me grinning broadly or even laughing out loud. Dipping in and out of it over the course of a couple of weeks, I felt that I had found a strange kind of friend in its narrator – I didn’t always like or agree with her, I admit, and like a real friend you spend too much time with, she did occasionally get on my nerves – and by the time the novel ended I was sad to lay it aside.
Ducks, Newburyport is a dense, thoughtful and unusually literary novel that has succeeded in doing something quite striking with form. Yet it shouldn’t, I don’t think, be seen as scary or challenging – yes, it’s long, but it is an utter delight. In a feat of literary genius, Lucy Ellmann has captured the disorder of the human experience; perhaps laughing at it, perhaps questioning it, perhaps asking us to give more, but at the same time offering a great deal of comfort. We might present a certain face to society, but it’s a different, far less high-flown story inside our own heads – we all have our hang-ups, our regrets and doubts and worries, and that, I felt while reading this, is OK. Ducks, Newburyport is bold and angry and often made me despair at the state of the word, but at the same time it managed to make me feel entirely understood.
If you’re looking for a slightly shorter read, this week I also reviewed the pocket-sized The Coral Merchant: Essential Stories, an eclectic introduction to the shorter fiction of Austrian writer Joseph Roth. Beautifully translated by Ruth Martin and published by Pushkin Press, it would make a great companion read to The World of Yesterday, Stephan Zweig’s memoir which I also reviewed recently. My thoughts on The Coral Merchant are available here on Shiny New Books.