By Lucy Ellman
Biblioasis. 1040 pp. $22.95
Reviewed by Donna Liquori
When you mention to people that you’re reading a 1,000-page book that’s mostly one sentence, the reaction is odd. Some people roll their eyes, others get a little angry over the audacity. But when you say the book is brilliant, incredulity seems to take over.
Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann is brilliant — and addictive. The main character is an unnamed woman who is a mother, cancer survivor, wife and baker, who also raises chickens. She’s trying to hold it together after her family is hit with numerous challenges and she’s struggling. Maybe she’s all of us, at least the mothers, anyway. Short-listed for the Booker Prize, the novel takes place in Ohio and offers a monologue of thoughts (many, many thoughts) on President Donald Trump, Otis elevator operators, school shootings, pies (many, many pies), laundry, chickens, mothers, bridges, rivers, Indian mounds, her childhood dog, and more. The listings, beginning with “the fact that” and separated by commas, aren’t just lumped together. There’s an art to them, a rhythm, that sort of takes you:
“the fact that I don’t know how animals think but I think in spirals, dizzying spirals, the fact that the WWF video of a deaf girl talking in sign language to an orangutan was completely fake, and I fell for it, the fact that, landsakes, orangutans don’t campaign for the rain forest, the fact that the good news right now is that animals don’t yet know we’ve wrecked the place, or they don’t know we did it at least, or they’d come after us, red in tooth and claw, the fact that it’s actually pretty lucky they don’t blame us for it, not like in The Birds … "
The reason this book resonates is that we all seem to be thinking in spirals, fueled by nonstop news, social media, and multiple screens. While the narrative seemingly jumps from one topic to another in a random stream of consciousness, reading it is an act of focus because it’s so mesmerizing. We can all relate to money problems, raising children, and illness. Throw in climate change, gun violence, and anxiety and you have a picture of what the United States is right now. It’s no mistake that the protagonist is a former college history teacher who weaves historical atrocities and trivia in with old movies, an obsession with Little House on the Prairie and tales from her childhood as she bakes multiple pies for her current business.
The book could easily dissolve, considering its length, but Ellmann fortifies it with mini-surprises tucked in throughout the narrative. (Yes, this book has a plot and sticking with it offers a big payoff ending.) The meaning of the title, Ducks, Newburyport. is buried in there too, and it’s unexpected and touching. There’s also a parallel story told with fully realized sentences about a lioness and her cubs that at times is harrowing.
It's the lovely bits of this beautiful life despite all the ugliness that makes this book really resonate. It's not all a horror show, especially when the character talks about the tender relationship that she has with her family and her husband, Leo.
There have been comparisons to James Joyce’s Ulysses, but Ellmann is in a class by herself.