author Lucy Ellmann

Booker 2019: Ducks, Newburyport

30th August 2019

Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann

Galley Beggar Press, London, 2019

Reviewed by Claire Steele

It’s hard to know how to begin a review of this novel, which weighs in at 1020 pages and consists of just eight sentences. Ellmann does something remarkable here in her attempt to represent all the multiplex, random, inchoate thoughts of a contemporary housewife in Ohio; it’s remarkable but it is almost unreadable, if you approach it in the way we are accustomed to reading. Instead of full stops and paragraph breaks Ellmann uses the repeated phrase ‘the fact that’ to signal a break (but also, sometimes, a continuity) in the narrative. ‘The fact that’ this can become wearisome in hundreds of pages with no white space is something I fought against. I didn’t want to find this account of a woman’s interior life fatiguing. I wanted it to be wild and brilliant and funny and yes, of course, mundane as well, because that too is what makes us human.

This is a book which tackles the chaos of contemporary female consciousness. The narrator’s preoccupations are the preoccupations of a middle-aged wife and mother. As she observes ‘the fact that there’s a lot you just have to blank out of you want to get through life’ operates here as a modus operandi for the novel. It’s excruciatingly boring, at times – we are used to our novelists cutting that out for us – and yet it does something profound too. The repetitions and random buzzing of a brain in creative freefall take us to a place where contemporary fiction rarely dares to venture, knowing that we prefer our fiction orderly. But, at some point in the reading, like most things which feel painful, I submitted to it; I surrendered to its overwhelm and I started to feel something else for it. This is a novel with the texture of a dream. Reading it we feel sure it is both strange and true.

Ellmann takes us into the arena – possibly the divine arena – of infinity. Words spool and fill the spaces. They don’t always make meaning, sometimes they just make sounds. The rhythms and rhymes, the lists of homophones, and word associations are strangely soporific, soothing even. In these moments it is as though we are being taken back to the pre-lingual bliss where thought might just precede language. They also take us into the ridiculous, prompt laughter and a sheer pleasure in themselves: words as words, as playthings. Language then does not just make meaning, it makes consolation, it makes nonsense, it makes us up out of memory, out of thought, it catalogues our experiences, it is playful and inventive and endlessly elaborate. Of course this had to be a long book. There was no other way to write it.

Alongside and interleaved into this massive, undifferentiated narrative is another story, much sparer and largely unexplained: the story of a mountain lion protecting her cubs. It arcs through the main narrative like a spirit guide, inviting us to consider our animal instincts, our strengths, our purpose. There is a point late in the novel when the two narratives converge, and it is one of the supreme moments of pleasure in the novel.

Ducks, Newburyport is, probably, a niche-market novel, because it is so unconventional and challenging. Its appeal is largely philosophical, textural, conceptual. There is no character development and there is no plot – it is a novel which exists in an extended (almost never-ending) moment of consciousness. Its density overwhelms more often than not, but now that I have finished it I miss it. I find myself thinking about its narrator, her determined cheerfulness in the face of anxiety and mortality; the way she longs for a world that is unthreatened by violence and excess. I miss being in her world, hearing her riff on things, the immediacy and brilliance of her fly-by-her pants take on her life. Hers is not a world of efficiency and composition, it is baggy, disorganised, unfettered. Here is a woman in her middle age whose very form defies the perfection of the slim volume. She is real in a completely unique way. I think that Ellmann has done something fantastic, but it’s like one of those massive collages of endlessly intricate pieces each of which is both fascinating and dull, and each of which means something else when you step back and see it from a distance. It takes a lot of looking to see it, but when you do see it you are suddenly lifted to a place which commands an admiration for being in the presence of something amazing.

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