Can I do justice to a 1,000-page, one-sentence novel in a short review over a few paragraphs?… Of course I can’t, but I’ll try and offer a couple of hundred inadequate words.
Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann has been nominated for this year’s Booker Prize, and it was on the back of that announcement that I decided to read it, welcoming the challenge of tackling such a tome while also realising there was a chance I’d quickly get bogged down in an impenetrable narrative and just give up.
I have to say that, having finished the novel, it is one of the most extraordinary reading experiences I have ever had. I thought it was an incredible book, and one that, very quickly, I became hooked on. Lucy Ellmann’s skill in writing this book leaves me in awe of her.
It’s the story of an Ohio mother constantly worrying about her children and her ability as a mother, while working from home making pies to sell to local businesses in order to make ends meet after illness left her and her husband with crippling financial bills. The novel dissects America, through her thoughts and observations, and lays bare its myriad of problems, including the endless stream of gun deaths, the systematic decimation of the environment, a never-ending cycle of male violence against women and a seemingly callous indifference by the general populace to the self-destructive path the country is on.
I did find that I could only read about 10-20 pages at a time as it was exhausting being in the mind of the main character, and while I’m sure there will be a temptation for some people to speed-read pages of it, to do so would mean you’re missing out on the whole experience.
The novel is a brilliant study of the human mind and how it works, and maybe for the first time made me think about the jumble of thoughts that go through my mind every moment of every day. Even within what appears to be, at times, a list of random words on the page, there is still a compelling narrative to follow, and the main character, in all her imperfections, is likeable and engaging. She has to be, in order to stick with her for 1,000 pages, but the effort is really worth it.
I’m not sure I’ll ever read Ducks, Newburyport again, but as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it was as good as it gets.