Wow. A joy of a book. It’s hard to know where to start when reviewing a book that the New Yorker describes as ‘encyclopedic’ . Ducks, Newburyport is a 1,020 page novel told (mostly) in a single sentence. The narrator, an Ohio housewife-turned-baking entrepreneur, muses on everything from stepping on her toddler’s yellow truck to climate change.
Ellmann uses the refrain ‘the fact that’ as a break, to signal the way our minds jump between thoughts. The structure of breaking without a full stop resembles the way we are constantly thinking while moving and doing other things. From time to time the narrator is rolling dough, collecting eggs or delivering pies – without stalling to tell the reader she has moved from A to B. Without ‘the fact that’ it would read as a single thought process and feel like the narrator was standing still. And of course it’s a way of establishing her truth or ‘facts’ in an age where facts are questioned.
Running alongside this narrative is the story of a lioness and her cubs living free in Ohio. We sense that this will connect with the narrator’s story but there is a broader purpose – it reminds us to see the world from a different point of view, including animals (something Robbie Arnott did in Flames) – to give a 360 degree view. It also ties in with the narrator worrying about animals and threats of extinction – we empathise with the lioness and see the plight of animals more vividly.
Why did I love it? First, the voice: I enjoyed being in the narrator’s company. She is shy and anxious – struggling with a teen daughter, Stacy, who seems to hate her and three younger children demanding her attention – but very funny. And I like that Ellmann is recording the thoughts of a woman who does not think they’re worth telling to anybody (compare with Stacy – a more narcissistic generation).
It is like visiting a friend and sitting in their kitchen while she bakes cinnamon rolls and chats to you. The conversation runs from everyday concerns to raising teens (Stacy puts a ‘DNR’ sign on her bedroom door) to the pollution of the Ohio River. The narrator watches old movies and her wry commentary on them is a highlight of the book.
We can relate to the narrator’s worries and insecurities. She is down on herself (for example, speaking of French philosophy, “What do I know?”). We want her to gain strength and reach a point of peace or contentment, but in the meantime it’s wonderful to follow her struggles: “with four kids there are only so many poignant moments a mom can keep track of”. Ellmann captures beautifully the way we talk to ourselves and our fleeting thoughts: “now I’ve forgotten what I came to the pantry for, the fact that I should finish filling the dishwasher first …”.
The writing propels you along. There is a sense of constant movement and she keeps you guessing, as you have to infer from snippets of her thoughts what the narrator is doing.
It is a great balance of (seemingly) random thoughts, observations and worries, and action – it spans a couple of months, so we move through the day, but also from winter to spring. Ellmann also shows how distracted we are and the absudity of life – the narrator can be reading a school curriculum one minute and the next minute “Alligator Found in Living Room” flashes up on her screen.
So, on one level it’s a cosy, laugh-out-loud read and nuanced portrait of a mother working from home in today’s America. The Virginia Woolf comparisons – as in this Financial Times review – are apt: it’s a brilliant study of an interior life. She is an ordinary American in sweat pants (“there’s no point in dressing up just to caramelize apples”) and Ellmann shows how a so-called domestic life can be endlessly interesting. It gives a sense that there are people doing menial jobs all over the world who have rich inner lives. She is describing something that is often invisible.
But it does more than that. The narrator worries about the state of America: healthcare, cancer, hurricanes, climate change, gun control, domestic violence, pollution, the extinction of species, the treatment of Native Americans, and teenagers watching beauty videos. There are a multitude of references to American food, culture and wildlife. So it becomes a novel about the state of America today and a re-telling of its history (this feels organic, as the narrator used to be a history teacher).
It’s an extraordinary achievement. Once I realised that this was what Ellmann was doing, I was even more captivated. It’s so engaging and cleverly done – whirling from one topic to another, but with logical connections. She uses movies as another way of understanding love, relationships and America.
It is a long book but Ellmann does many things to keep it coherent: the lioness story to indicate the passing of time; the lively writing; and motifs that recur throughout the text (the Ohio River, Little House on the Prairie, her mother, baking, guns, old movies and burial mounds).
I’ve tagged many pages – it’s endlessly quotable. This one captures some of her thinking on history and her son’s preoccupation with space:
“if you’re lucky you might live long enough to see close-ups of Pluto, and dust devils on Mars, and maybe even some exciting aurora borealises, as well as watching a few crackpot presidents come and go …”
This might be my favourite book of the year so far – highly recommended. Who is your tip to win the Booker?