Book Review: Ducks, Newburyport

Title: Ducks, Newburyport

Author: Lucy Ellmann

Publisher: Galley Beggar Press

Rating: 3/5

Synopsis

This book follows the thoughts of an Ohioan housewife who bakes for a living. In between baking one pie after another, she worries about the state of the world and everything in between.

She worries she is not making enough money to sustain her family, she worries her children will be shot in a mass shooting and the fact that humans are destroying the planet. In between these worries, she even worries that she is worrying too much. But that’s very difficult when she lives in modern America, and in a state home to Cleveland; one of the most dangerous cities in the U.S.

We never learn her name, but in some ways we don’t have to. This 1000 page book follows the stream of conscious of an average American, trying to make their way through the qualms of modern life.

Review

I will start off by saying this is unlike any book I have ever read before. It has been a long time since it has taken me nearly two months to read any book, however, I was reading other books alongside this, as I couldn’t read this for long without needing to take a break.

I was in awe of the themes and parameters of this book. Like many, I struggle to understand the ways of modern America and the direction in which it appears to be heading. This book deals with these very ideas.

Through a seemingly average American, we learn about problems within American society, Ohio, and the world. There is a persistent critique of society, the political system and sense of injustice,

“the fact that is is all so much about money and influence now, the fact that that’s not very democratic really…. the fact that they’re all in denial about Trump too, the fact that everybody around here just thinks he’s doing a fine job or something, while they get poorer and poorer, and angrier and angrier…”

This Ohioan housewife is definitely not a Trump supporter. It was interesting to read a book discussing many current American political issues in an honest, revealing, and sometimes, amusing way. There were elements which were rather poignant; especially when discussing gun crime, one of her main concerns as a parent, is that she can never do everything to keep her children safe,

“…the fact that that is really not fair, the fact that you haven’t even got a chance if somebody decides to do something like that, just start killing people out of the blue….”

Thus, this is a theme that is repeated throughout the book, which infers how much of a constant worry it is. It really hones in on after all these years and human achievements, this is what is has come down to. In the modern world, some are happy to shoot strangers and tear apart strangers and their families.

As well as these persistent worries, she also frets about the state of the environment and how humans are so happy to kill anything and everything, she worries about the prospects of imminent nuclear war and how we are so powerless as futile individuals to think we can stop it.

In spite of all her persistent concerns, there is always some light at the end of the tunnel. Frequently, she interrupts herself to remind herself that we have to be happy to be alive,

“the fact that there are times, maybe the most unlikely times, that you realize your’re simply thrilled to be alive, and what a great piece of luck it is just to be a part of things, to have a body, so you can feel and see and walk the earth….”

which should serve as a reminder to us all. Above all, this stream of consciousness is a critique of humanity and our collective actions as a species. How we are causing more harm than good, and how these world problems can drain the life out of your average American who is just trying to live a happy life and make ends meet.

As a character, she is endearing and funny. I found her relatable, as like her, I worry about anything and everything. As a reader, you are constantly inside her head with very few breaks which can be tiring but very insightful. There are no other books I can compare it to, that deliver this same depth of consciousness.

Despite its stunning exploration of important aspects of modern life, I can’t help but feel that its delivery was lacking. It really was exhausting to read and because of this, I felt like it could have been written in half the number of words.

Some things are repeated so often that they lose their original poignancy. In her construction of this book, Ellmann makes her point clearly, but I can’t help but feel it was done so much more eloquently by others, such as Ali Smith. The steam of consciousness she creates is initially enlightening, different, and puts across a significant aspect of the book itself – the very fact that this character cannot escape from the depths of her own mind. However, as a reader, reading 1000 pages of the same thing does get exasperating.

I feel like Ellmann was deliberately trying to break the boundaries of a traditional novel just to appear different, when in reality, the boundaries of a novel and its distinct divisions in chapters and paragraphs, are what makes reading such a pleasure and enjoyment. In abandoning this, Ellmann manages to make this read a chore. It may have been an interesting at times, but the sheer lack of structure and repetitiveness made it a far than enjoyable read, but more what you could call a ‘slog’. Abandoning the traditional structure of a novel is bold – but only celebratory if it works.

I was fascinated by the parameters of this book and fully invested in the character, but felt like the pace of this book was slow, going over the same bumps in the road again and again, and could have been cut in half to deliver the same message. I was relieved to finish this book – and that says a lot in itself.

I would talk more about the parallel narration between her and the lion, but nonetheless that wasn’t explained clearly. What I take from it, is that Ellmann was trying to show an animal view of humanity,

“She listened out for her kittens even when all kitten sounds were blocked by dimwitted human excitements, human mirth, human arrogance, and of course the noisy, smelly cars in which they slashed and stabbed and scarred their way across the earth.”

I would say this dual narration was one of the most interesting parts of the book, if only I could fully understand it. It felt like Ellmann was using the narration from an animal perspective to shed an insight into humanity, and offer the idea that we too, are merely animals, rather than some sophisticated beings we imagine ourselves to be. We are maybe not so intelligent, when we are pulling the world apart.

Final thoughts

If you’ve got the stamina to read a 1000 page long stream of consciousness riddled with critiques of contemporary America and everything in between, then give this book a go. And let me know what you think! It would be great to discuss this book with people as I haven’t yet met/talked to anyone who has read the whole thing. It’s definitely something different – and it deserves a try just for that.

If you’re interested, here are some articles on the book:

The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/can-one-sentence-capture-all-of-life

The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jul/15/ducks-newburyport-by-lucy-ellmann-review

9 thoughts on “Book Review: Ducks, Newburyport

  1. Great review, and congratulations for finishing it! I haven’t read this but I’m not sure if I’ll have the stamina for it. (Right now, with grad school work, even just 300 pages feels long to me, but I’ll see when I’m on break!) What you mentioned about the non-human perspective was interesting, though – I might give it a go just to see how that’s executed. Also, I agree about paragraph and chapter breaks – some formal conventions are there for entirely practical reasons. Hope your next read will be more enjoyable (and shorter!). 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your comment! The thing is with this book I feel like you can pick it up and put it down as there’s no real structure to follow it’s just a continuation with no particular story line but let me know how you get on if you do decide!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. So she’s written a series (the seasons I think it’s called) and it’s Autumn (book 1) Winter, Spring, Summer – dealing with political fragmentation in Britain rather than the US

        Liked by 1 person

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