ducks, newburyport lucy ellmann.jpg

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 cinnamon rolls I baked while reading the novel

The cinnamon rolls I baked while reading the novel

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.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLucy Ellmann

What becomes of us when everything we think of as essential to our lives (job, partners, family, community) disappear and all we’re left with is hope? A person’s identity crumbles. He floats terrifyingly free and grasps for something solid. This is the issue at the heart of Anthony Trevelyan’s debut novel “The Weightless World.” It begins with the narrator Steven Strauss accompanying his boss Raymond Ess on a business journey to India. On a previous soul-searching trip, Raymond met a man who invented an anti-gravity machine and he struck a deal to acquire the rights. The potential of such a device is enormous, but is it real? Reality is something at play between Steven and Raymond along their journey because both have secrets. This journey isn’t what it seems and the life they must eventually return to in England will be radically different from what it was before. This becomes a mission on which everything is at stake.

Trevelyan has a very easy to read and engaging prose style. At first, his narrator Steven is totally consumed by managing his older and mentally-delicate boss. Gradually Steven reveals his own insecurities and strangely aggressive nature. During his journey the man he thinks he was unravels as revelations unfold. Steven’s identity is stripped down until he feels “my life was a soap bubble in the breeze, worthless, weightless” and he discovers what’s really important in his life. Their journey takes them to a remote location where the inventor of the anti-gravity machine Tarik Kundra has complicated reasons for remaining so reclusive.

Steven and Raymond’s Indian guide is a highly educated woman named Asha. Her character adds a complexity to the narrative because she questions the morality of the travellers’ mission and the way India is exploited in the modern world. At one point she confronts Steven saying “The whole place, the whole country. India disgusts you. Let me tell you, it disgusts me too. What is India but the world’s whore, the world’s favourite foreign fuck? So exotic, so authentic, so convenient, so easy…” The exploits and in-fighting of the expedition group lead to catastrophic results where it’s the people of the local community who suffer and fight back. Lurking in the background of this story is news of a bombing in Bangalore. There is a continuous theme that the needs of the Indian people are being subsumed in favour of foreign capitalist gain.

“The Weightless World” is a brisk comic-tragedy. The adventure undertaken by the narrator and his boss Ess lead to a surprising, contemplative and ultimately touching ending.

Read an article by the author about his inspiration for writing the novel here:

AuthorEric Karl Anderson

Eimear McBride has that rare writer’s talent for breaking language and grammar down to use them for her own purposes. The story of an Irish girl coming of age in a strict Catholic setting is a familiar one, but the way the author tells it gives a fresh visceral understanding of the experience. The narrative is compact and clustered together with a bare minimum given to setting the scene so thoughts and dialogue are balled up as tightly as a clenched fist. However, the words sound out sharp and clear so that if you read it carefully you always know exactly where you are located, who is speaking and what is happening. The writing in “A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing” is unlike any that has come before. At times it feels like a Beckett play with disconsolate Irish voices ringing out in a tumultuous stream. It can also at points invoke the kind of subterranean speech used in Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves” where dialogue is neither what’s being said in reality nor is it what is consciously going through the characters’ minds, but it’s impressionistic and poetic thought welling up from the inside. However, the experience of reading this striking, accomplished first novel isn’t wholly like either of these examples. McBride establishes her own unique voice which adheres to a particular set of rules and logic set by the author.

It takes time to get into the rhythm of the story as sentences come across as so fractured and disjointed. “We are bad her. She and me. My friend I’d call.” Yet, once you get into the rhythm of the unnamed narrator’s voice it takes on a special complex meaning which would be impossible to get from a traditionally narrated novel. When I was reading this book home alone I found it helpful to read it out aloud. Maybe it’s a quality of Irish writing that when the words are spoken aloud the musicality and intent of it comes through in a way that is so much more meaningful and different from simply silently reading the text. Or perhaps there are such powerful character voices cutting through the text that they can be naturally transformed into a theatrical monologue. For instance try reading these few lines silently and then say them out loud: “And my head is good for secrets. I can bang it on the wall. It takes the nervous out and no one bothers for it at all.” Doesn’t the meaning subtly develop and change? If nothing else, it allows you to appreciate how unusually beautiful the writing is. Whether you choose to read part or all of this book aloud yourself is up to you, but I’d recommend trying it.

McBride’s narrator describes her intense close relationship with her sick brother, the traumatic experience of living through puberty and becoming sexually aware through her first adolescent experience with an uncle and later with boys at school. I was particularly struck by this unapologetically blunt passage where she asserts that her sexual promiscuity gives her control: “And in a car the best. Warm and parked away. They’ll do what they can to me in here. On my knees I learn plenty – there’s a lot I’ll do and they are all shame when they think their flesh desired. Offer up to me and disconcerted by my lack of saying no. Saying yes is the best of powers. It’s no big thing the things they do.” This at once asserts her right to express her sexual attraction to boys/men and cuts them down for not being particularly imaginative in their physical abilities. Later her opinion on this is modified as she matures and develops more complex sexual relationships.

Unsurprisingly, the narrator establishes herself as fiercely intelligent and unique from those around her in her provincial Irish town. The people here mark her out as different. For instance they mock her passion for reading: “God how can you read books at all? Look at that three hundred pages an awful lot to read.” She moves on to higher education and establishes her independence away from her family. “Look around. What if. I could. I could make. A whole other world a whole civilisation in this this city that is not home? The heresy of it. But I can. And I can choose this. Shafts of sun. Life that is this. And I can. Laugh at it because the world goes on. And no one cares. And no one’s falling into hell.” This beautifully sums up asserting ones own place in the world and breaking out of the rules (Catholic, social and otherwise) that one has been governed by in life thus far. She cuts herself off from her past and the people she’s known with a terrifying severity: “I will not think of your feelings anymore. For it’s a bit too much to know.” For a time it seems as if she will leave behind her town and family for good, but when there are developments in her family she must return. Here the mettle of her new identity is tested against the strictures of her upbringing. She must piece herself together anew and reconcile the multifaceted aspects of her life.

This novel is at times deadly serious as the narrator is defiant, but wracked with guilt and grief. “I am. Such a mess of blood and shame.” However, it is also fantastically funny and witty. Certain passages ring out as wickedly hilarious especially when she sticks two fingers up in the face of religion. “We heard of you and know you’ll want to hear the good good news. Oh whatsit? Jesus loves you. Right enough and so and is there some more better news than that?” Her blunt dismissal and anger about religion comes naturally out of being raised in such a restrictive environment that hasn’t allowed her to develop openly in the way she’d like. This raises a lot of humour and intensely personal emotion. As the novel progresses and the narrator reaches an emotionally intense point the text cripples under the weight of her life and becomes increasingly fragmented. The tension reached a point where I felt like I could barely breathe.

McBride has written a novel so fresh and individual it will be fascinating to see what she might produce next. I’m sure some people will find it tough to get into the highly stylized narrative, but once I got into the flow of it I was engulfed in and fell in love with the voice. It apparently took the author nine years to find a publisher for the book. I can only be thankful she persevered in getting it published and that Galley Beggar Press realized that this is a fantastically original voice which needs to be heard.

Listen to a brilliant interview with the author from You Wrote the Book: