Lucy Ellmann’s novel, Ducks, Newburyport, is an utterly compelling read…
Just under a quarter of the way into Ducks, you come across the reference to 3-D stereograms I’ve put into the picture above; and to me it seemed like a key, unlocking the secret of this remarkable novel’s extraordinary narrative power. You read line after line, and while, OK, you’re entertained, you do rather wonder where on earth Ellmann’s going with it all, and then, quite suddenly, a whole scene springs into focus, vivid and charged with emotional energy. I’ve never come across a narrative technique quite like this; the effect is certainly comparable to the sudden “seeing” of a magic 3D picture image, and I wonder if Ellmann planted that little clue there deliberately. The fact that the narrator says she could never see them herself is typically self-deprecating; is it perhaps an ironic nudge from the author to the reader too? The effect of these epiphanies is cumulative, and once you’ve read your way in, learned the way it works, the text becomes as gripping as any conventional narrative- more so in my view, because of the imaginative investment the reader is forced to make. You surf waves of compelling rhythm, backwards and forwards referencing, phrases recurring like refrains, scenes emerging, coming into focus, fading, re-emerging, all driven by the relentless pounding of “…the fact that… the fact that…” drumming away anxiously like the narrator’s own irregular heartbeat.
Ducks, Newburyport is in for the 2019 Booker Prize. Its technical innovation alone ought to make it a strong contender; but so also should its evocation of one woman’s fearful apprehension of life in the USA as a bubbling cauldron of anxieties, the dangers threatening the children she loves so much and the often hostile environment in which they are growing up. Ellmann’s technique enables her voice’s protest against these evils strongly and movingly, especially her horror of firearms and those who like to carry them: I didn’t call this little essay Getting your ducks in a row without thinking about where the expression came from. In my view the expressive, sympathetic quality of the writing and the novel’s urgent engagement with the horrific issues facing a parent in contemporary society must surely make it a winner. And don’t call me Shirley. (Yes, it very often manages to be laugh-out-loud funny too.)
The book’s cover quotes Cosmopolitan’s reviewer as saying “Ulysses has nothing on this.” Well, no, but then they’re not really comparable, are they? Our narrator is no Molly Bloom! Ulysses certainly uses what we have come to call ‘stream of consciousness’, but the feel of the writing in Ducks is completely different. In fact if you must look for influences the author who came to my mind more than Joyce was the Samuel Beckett of The Unnameable, where the increasingly breathless rhythm of the first-person voice seems to carry the reader on a wave of rising panic. Having said that, Ellmann clearly knows and loves her Joyce. The punning and sense of humour (or humor!) could be superficially compared to Finnegan’s Wake, but the structure of Ducks isn’t timelessly cyclic like Joyce’s masterpiece (although dreams come into it a lot) having instead a very clear narrative direction, which the steady counterpointing of the narrator’s point of view and the lioness’s emphasises strongly; the fragments of the animal story (shades of White Fang) with which the book starts and then abruptly leaves, keep returning, (literally spiralling around the main thrust of the narrative if you follow the map,) getting closer and closer until their interaction becomes… well. The fact that to go on with this any further would be a spoiler!
The fact that (sorry, I’ll stop that now!) one is concerned not to give away spoilers to future readers must indicate that Ducks is on one level a thriller. I became more and more engaged with the book as I got further into it, until it was actually “un-put-downable”, and reading through the horrifying climax (all right, no spoiler!) to the ending (…all right!) I admit I was on the verge of blubbing. Let the Bard have the last word:
The Tempest Act 5 scene 1
Ariel: …your affections would become tender.
Prospero: Dost thou think so, Spirit?
Ariel: Mine would, Sir were I human.
And being human is what Ducks, Newburyport is all about. It deals with desperate matters, but somehow, I feel, is also full of hope. Congratulations, Lucy, and thank you.