By Lucy Ellmann
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LATTICING one cherry pie after another, an Ohio housewife tries to bridge the gaps between reality and the torrent of meaningless info that is the United States of America. She worries about her children, her dead parents, African elephants, the bedroom rituals of “happy couples”, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and how to hatch an abandoned wood pigeon egg. Is there some trick to surviving survivalists? School shootings? Medical debts? Franks ’n’ beans?
A scorching indictment of America’s barbarity, past and present, and a lament for the way we are sleepwalking into environmental disaster, Ducks, Newburyport is a heresy, a wonder—and a revolution in the novel.
It’s also very, very funny.Tweet
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Daljit1: This is a big book in every sense of the word. I did think reading 1000 pages of someone's internal thoughts would get very annoying and boring and in some parts I did struggle to keep going but I'm glad I laboured on. Surprisingly I did find it more and more engaging and often funny, she worries about her family, the state of America, the environment and often just random ramblings which we can all relate to. She doesn't tell a story but as the reader you have to piece things together and work it all out.
This is a brave and clever book but I think it would have been just as effective if not more so if it was a few hundred pages shorter.
fatimamirza: I wanted to dislike this novel from the start. Too heavy, no punctuation: how could I tolerate that?
10 pages in I wondered whether to continue. What is this woman ranting about? Where's the story? This 'the fact that' is going to annoy me. What is this lion story about? Why has this been nominated? Intrigued, I persevered.
I found the novel thought provoking, not only because it leads the reader to question form, narrative and punctuation, as well as draw parallelsbetween the human and animal kingdom - rather pretentious I hear you cry - but also because it is a study on thought. Yes our thoughts are sometimes mundane and jump from past to present to worries about the future and that can make the novel difficult to read but also difficult to put down.
The protagonist speaks for us all. She is both witty and intelligent and I for one has truly enjoyed reading her observations on the modern life including: Trump, the environment and animal welfare. These run alongside the worries and joys of motherhood, running a business, divorce, love, cancer, losing your parents... The list goes on - as does human thought which of course is random, has no punctuation and is sometimes banal.
Chantal Bordet: The fact that I abhor bad grammar and was intent on hating 'Ducks, Newburyport' but I didn't, the fact that it is difficult to read but impossible not to relate to, the fact that Lucy's ramblings can echo mine, the fact that her observations and commentary on the environment, communities and world affairs are often sharp, informative and alternate between sad and very funny, the fact that it takes a big heart, creativity and bravery to break the mould and write a book like this, the fact that the afore mentioned qualities tick my boxes. The bottom line is 'Duck, Newburyport' is not for everyone and can bit a tad annoying but it deserves respect and deserves reading. Review for The booker Prize 2019 ('Wine, Women & Words' Book Club )
I received this beautifully gift wrapped novel with much anticipation. Having already viewed a review that said only 2% of readers will "get it", unfortunately I fell into the other 98% who simply did not "get it". As a middle aged woman myself, I found the rambling thoughts of this woman served only to confuse and frustrate my already menopausal and frenzied brain. The fact that it is interspersed with "The fact that" up to 30 times in a page further annoyed me and whilst it contained some very poignant observations, it's sheer length and repetiveness made it a chore to read. The Irish Times describes it as 'one of the outstanding books of the century '. In my opinion it was outstandingly long, confused and frenetic.
One of the reasons we at Wine Women and Words were keen to shadow the Booker judges was the opportunity to read a book we might not have chosen ourselves. We’re not a group to balk at a challenge but it’s fair to say that Ducks, Newburyport has tested us. Our mutual encouragement and support system though has enabled us to see past its length and the one sentence thing and find a book of humour and warmth with the clear voice of a woman of a certain age we could all relate to. I laughed out loud - not least at the poodle coat early on - and enjoyed the cultural references which resonated with us, there was even a north London connection- this woman could be one of our group. Having said all that, I thought there was a lot of repetition - of course our thoughts repeat themselves too, we are all so aware of them now - and it was easy to be distracted by the tangents - did Alec Guinness really warn James Dean about the car...?
So, was I challenged by this book? Yes. Ultimately satisfied? No.
This 1000 page book was 7 years in the making with Lucy Ellman writing for 12-14 hours a day to complete it and I can quite simply say it’s a masterpiece. Our narrator is an Ohio housewife baking pies and musing on life. Her patchwork of thoughts, ramble and jump and digress, cleverly reflecting the way my own brain works. Is this the curse of the middle aged mother? One minute her “life is all shopping, chopping, slicing, splicing, spilling, grilling, fooling, cooling, heating, boiling, broiling, frying and macrophages” and the next she is musing on topical environmental issues. For something that has taken so long to write it has a very contemporary feel, with references to the Trump regime, recent police shooting and the roll of the NRA in supporting gun ownership. The brilliance of the book is in the way Lucy Ellman intersperses the text with snippets of songs, abstract words that connect phrases and somehow connect to themselves and the phrase “the fact that”. All this is done without a full stop in sight. This initially appears to be very distracting, but as the book progresses these very cleverly weave around the storyline, helping to connect her current thoughts to past thoughts and events, finally culminating in an almost ‘explosive’ ending. This book was full of wit, sadness, wiseness and pain with an overarching theme of motherhood and a mother’s love. I can honestly say I have never read anything like it and it’s absolutely worthy of its position on The Booker Prize shortlist.
Our reading group 'PE Loves Reading' read ‘Ducks, Newburyport’ by Lucy Ellmann as part of the Booker Prize 2019 Shortlist shadowing.
The novel is over 1000 pages long and has made headlines as being a possible response to James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ of 1922 which changed the concept of what a novel is.
Some of our group were lucky enough to go on BBC Radio’s ‘Front Row’ and take part in a ‘Booker book club’ discussion with Ellmann. This gave us the chance to ask some questions, but, as with writing this review, it’s a challenge to not be perhaps distracted by the publicity: 1090 pages, 8 sentences, no chapters, repetition of ‘the fact that’ etc.
The novel presents the thoughts of a female protagonist in the ‘stream of consciousness’ style. Distinctive aspects of Ellmann’s style are ‘accumulation’. The protagonists thoughts are at times a series of references: one word sparks another in a great long list. The streams of thoughts are punctuated by the phrase ‘the fact that’. The novel is not plot or character driven. There is no ‘setting’ or ‘description’ in the usual sense. Neither is their dialogue or direct speech between characters. The protagonist’s thoughts are spliced at intervals with a more ‘conventional’ narrative about a female mountain lion.
Our group enjoyed the way in which reading the text requires a certain degree of ‘puzzling’. Information about the human world the protagonist exists in are ‘dropped into’ the narrative at intervals, so that an image of who she is, the people in her life and what she does very gradually emerges.
We asked ourselves:
Why do we need such a quantity of the woman’s thoughts? Why is it so long?
Why is it so dense? There is very little ‘white space’ to divide the text. Few paragraphs or any other division other than when the mountain lion narrative is spliced in.
Why was it important to present a consciousness in this way?
Why is the phrase ‘the fact that’ used so often?
What keeps you reading in the absence of a conventional narrative structure?
In discussion with Ellmann, some questions were answered:
Mothers and all that they do are neglected in literature or criticised. So the novel is a response to this gap.
Ellmann described ‘the fact that’ as a ‘soft’ punctuation mark.
Her mother’s feminism is important when thinking about what this novel is about.
There are ‘blank spaces’ in the character’s interior monologue, but to include them would have made the novel significantly longer.
The novel is set in 2017 and as it took Ellmann seven years to write it, some readers were amazed at her prescience.
Overall, this novel was thought-provoking and in some senses demanding of us as readers. To publish a novel of such physical weight and size seems in a sense a radical challenge to our expectations of receiving information in small, palatable chunks, but a healthy, stimulating one.