Focus on Ducks, Newburyport - Booker Prize 2019

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The Booker Prize is the leading literary award in the English speaking world, and has brought recognition, reward and readership to outstanding fiction for over five decades. Each year, the prize is awarded to what is, in the opinion of the judges, the best novel of the year written in English and published in the UK. It is a prize that transforms the winner’s career.

The full shortlist of six titles can be found here, but in this series of articles we will look at each title in detail.

Ducks, Newburyport

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.

Wine, Women and Words

About the group

Our book group, Wine, Women and Words has been meeting for more than nine years and we’ve read a wide variety of books in that time: fiction, non-fiction, some prize winning, some deserving of prizes and some others definitely not. We are really excited to have been selected to shadow the Booker Prize 2019 and given the opportunity to get our hands on some new, high quality reading material. We are especially pleased to see that four women have been shortlisted.

There are nine of us in our group and we’ve known each other for many years after meeting in the primary school playground when our children (now mostly adults) were little. We are an eclectic bunch spanning many nationalities, backgrounds and careers and we all look forward to our book group evenings, lunches out or weekends away. Why does our group work so well? We have a mutual love of books and by forming the group were looking for intellectual stimulation beyond the boundaries of our family lives and work.

We get together roughly every six weeks though we throw in the odd ‘gathering’ in between to escape Sky Sports and our husbands/children. As our name suggests, we like a glass or two when we get together and our group provides an important outlet for us all. We’ve cried together, laughed together, we share our lives – we are a sisterhood.

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Thoughts on the book

As with all books we read as a group some of us loved Ducks, Newburyport and some really didn’t enjoy it. It did, however, engage us in a very lively discussion which is always a good thing for a reading group. The book focuses on our protagonists stream of consciousness whilst in her kitchen making pies. This made for a complex read which at times felt fast paced and slightly frenetic as it lacked a more traditional story line. Those of us that enjoyed the book the most considered the unique writing style to be like a piece of conceptual art to be savoured as a whole, without too much focus on individual words, although without a doubt there was some exceedingly clever use of language. The constant use of the phrase ‘the fact that’, snippets of songs and lists of abstract but connected words act as a form of punctuation replacing the full stops and breaking the text up into manageable soundbites. This book made us very conscious our own thought process and worldview and how our own mind jumps from thought to thought and how easily we are distracted. In fact several of us found our minds wandering whilst reading the book, sidetracking into the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the escape of exotic animals from Muskingham Country animal farm in Ohio and the fatal shooting of pajama clad Justine Damond in Minneapolis.

We all enjoyed Lucy Ellman’s great insight into motherhood and her drawing this out in both the protagonists stream of consciousness and the parallel narrative of the mountain lion. We could all relate to the notion of lazy children who can’t be bothered to unload the dishwasher and how sometimes it is easier just to become a slave to them. We loved the feisty teenage daughter, Stacy and could again draw parallels to some of our own children. We felt there was a huge amount of love in this book; our protagonist for her children and her own mother, her husband Leo’s love for her and the mountain lions aching love for her cubs.

We also loved the topical satire in the book reflected in the commentary on Trump, the state of the environment, the monster that is cancer, the hideous shootings in America by both civilians and the police and the NRA’s response to gun control.

We are looking forward to seeing whether The Booker Prize 2019 consider it a worthy winner

PE Loves Reading

About the group

Most of us work together on English at Pearson Edexcel and share a passion for reading and things literary. We’re mainly English Literature graduates and there are some former English teachers amongst us. We read the Booker longlist and other prize lists. We enjoy the odd group theatre trip to keep our pulse on contemporary drama. Some of us read weekly with primary school pupils through the former Booktime scheme; we support Read for the Record , Literacy Pirates and the Summer Reading Challenge at our local libraries. If it’s ‘about books’, we love it.

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Thoughts on the book

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

Get involved

Have you read Ducks, Newburyport? Do you want to know what other readers thought? Leave your own review online.

Want to know more? Download a Readers’ Guide for Ducks, Newburyport, including information about the author, as well as some discussion notes and themed reading.

Find out about the other books on the shortlist.

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