I will sometimes enthusiastically purchase long novels with the best intentions of reading them soon but nonetheless they’ll typically remain on my shelf for many years before I get to them. But I was strongly tempted by the description of Lucy Ellmann’s monumental “Ducks, Newburyport” and its Booker Prize longlisting buzz got to me so I put it on my immediate reading list. While it's intimidating to read a 1000 page novel that’s mostly narrated in one unbroken sentence, “Ducks, Newburyport” is also hypnotic for the rhythm it develops, the frequent Laugh-Out-Loud humour and the moving way it builds a portrait of the life of an Ohio housewife and her many anxieties living in America today. Her story radiates a warm familiarity as we come to intimately know her sweeping stream of thoughts while baking a mountain of pies to sell and food for her family. It also inspired me to bake cinnamon rolls for the first time!
She ruminates on a whole range of subjects from her personal past to her immediate family life caring for four children to local news to political divisions in America to global environmental concerns. Usually these thoughts become mixed together and happen concurrently so she needs to periodically pause and clarify what she’s referring to. She’s also affected by what’s happening around her, the films she watches while baking and odd song lyrics which surface randomly in her mind. The trivial rubs up alongside what feels dearly important. This profusion of things running through her mind has a consistent rhythm so it becomes easy to follow and accumulates more meaning as certain subjects, memories or ideas resurface frequently. Thus they steadily acquire more resonance and also take on a humorous edge as the barrage of thoughts will sometimes become jumbled and absurd. There’s something mesmerising and hypnotic about this constant flow of words. It’s addictive and so tempting to emulate!
The chain of thoughts are frequently linked through the assertive words “the fact that…” This may just be a mental tic but it gives a feeling of plain-speaking sincerity as if she’s laying out exactly what she’s thinking and feeling. It also highlights the dubious relationship we have with “facts” in our current age as we often accept what we discover on internet searches as solid fact or opinions spouted on social media as sincere truth. Even if we are consciously aware that the information we find online is conjecture or rumour it still gets lodged in our consciousness as a point of reference when trying to interpret and interact with the world. So I think the narrator’s constant reference to “facts” which are more often ideas received from speculation or half-remembered news reports shows how we often only have a tenuous understanding about what’s really happening. This is something the narrator freely admits as she acknowledges she forgets a lot, misremembers things and “the fact that I remember all the wrong stuff”.
There’s also the surprising tale running parallel to her story which is narrated from the perspective of a mountain lion. The housewife's thoughts are periodically broken by short sections following the journey of this lion as she hunts and seeks to protect her cubs. The simplicity of the lion's life contrasts sharply with her own where she feels utterly overwhelmed, but their stories also intersect in a fascinating way. There’s also a symbolic importance to lions which occasionally appear in her narrative in the form of an old Christmas ornament or a recalled visit to the zoo. Notably the sections about the mountain lion are narrated in short declarative sentences as opposed to the unending sentence of the housewife. It made me think how burdened the housewife is by this inner monologue that she’s helpless to stop even though she knows it’s pointless: “the fact that what is with this constant monologue in my head, the fact that why am I telling myself all this stuff, since I know it already, the fact that I knew it all before I said it to myself, because I’M ME, Kraft Miracle Whip”.
Part of the beauty of this novel is that even if the narrator believes her thoughts unimportant the novel bestows importance to her life and her point of view. She’s aware that “a lot of people think all I think about is pie, when really it’s my spinal brain doing most of the peeling and caramelizing and baking and flipping, while I just stand there spiralling into a panic about my mom and animal extinctions and the Second Amendment just like everybody else”. So the narrative reveals how she feels the burden of both local and global concerns, but she doesn’t believe she has the power to participate in or change any of these problems. Part of what is so endearing and sympathetic about her is how she frequently puts herself down and diminishes herself. Her story also points out how this is just one of many such inner monologues occurring in the human population: “the fact that there are seven and a half billion people in the world, so there must be seven and a half billion of these internal monologues going on”. Through becoming so closely aligned with her subjective point of view we become aware of the singular integrity of everyone’s own perspective.
The novel’s title refers to an occasion when the narrator’s mother almost drowned when she was a child running towards some ducks in a pond. This incident seems to haunt the narrator as obviously if her mother had died she’d have never come into existence. But ducks take on a bigger meaning throughout the novel because she’ll refer to how people are made to feel like “sitting ducks”. This highlights how vulnerable we’re made to feel in the modern world with frequent news of terrorist attacks or gun violence in America. There’s a randomness to this violence which makes it particularly nerve wracking. This is highlighted further with a description of how their house is positioned perilously close to a dangerous road and she fears that at any moment a car might come crashing through their home. It shows how we’re living in an anxiety-ridden age but “we all go on pretending things are fine, hoping everything’s a-okay, even though everything is nowhere near okay and we all know it, no matter how many candlelit vigils you hold”.
Does this novel justify its length? Absolutely yes, but it's hard to articulate why looking at the structure from the outside. There’s little plot, frequent repetition and extensive lists. Yet there's an accumulation of detail which builds to something truly monumental in its depiction of her life and the sympathetic way she shows how we're made to feel like we're burdened with the weight of the world on our shoulders today. But it's also incredibly funny and this humour adds a compulsive momentum to her story. There’s the pleasure of identifying with her so strongly because even though there’s so much about her experience which is particular she becomes a kind of everyman or everywoman. As a movie fan, I found all the commentary on particular film plot lines fun and when an occasional line from a film appears amidst her thoughts it gives an enjoyable jolt of recognition. I also particularly appreciated the wordplay - how the sound of one word will connect her to another disconnected word which will make her recall something entirely random sending her off on another tangent unrelated to what she was thinking about before. It’s what gives this style of narration such propulsion and makes it so tempting to emulate. The final sections of the novel also had me gripped and I was pleasantly surprised by the dramatic turns it took. I'm going to miss being inside her head.