Review: Lucy Ellmann’s “Ducks, Newburyport”

There are novels, and then there are extraordinary novels—truly unique, one-of-a-kind, sui generis—terms that are often used as clichés but I assure you not in Lucy Ellmann’s case, regarding her eighth novel, Ducks, NewburyportI confess that I have not read any of the earlier ones by this American born but Irish writer, which is one of the mind-blowing aspects of Ducks, Newburyport, a truly great American novel that catches our zeitgeist more accurately during the Trump years than anything else I have read. From Ireland (where she resides) Ellmann has crawled into the horrifying times in which we live and written an explosive story that will engage you on every one of its 1000 pages but particularly in the final hundred, where things happen that you, the reader, did not realize were being foreshadowed in the earlier pages of the narrative.

That’s part of Ellmann’s magic. For the first 900 pages, Ducks, Newburyport seemingly has no plot. In fact, it appears to operate outside of any narrative time. Rather, it’s composed of the ramblings (“this monologue in my head”) of a middle-aged woman and mother of four. The children range in age from about five or six to fifteen and are the product of her two marriages. And, although she is never named, her current husband, Leo, is. He’s a professor of engineering at a university in Ohio. She has had cancer (“I had to get the most embarrassing kind of cancer”), and although Leo has decent health insurance from the university, the family’s finances have still been wrecked. In order to supplement his income and save money for their children’s college educations, she bakes pies and other sweets (especially tartes tatin) for restaurants, a seemingly innocuous job, but one that will eventually jump back and—in the last hundred pages of the story—almost destroy the family.

But it’s this woman’s/mother’s/wife’s mind that will engage you. Other reviewers have already compared her to Molly Bloom, her publishers refer to the novel as Moby-Dick in the kitchen; but these facts also provide a key to understanding her monologue: Lucy Ellmann’s father, Richard Ellmann, was James Joyce’s biographer. Some of it (the stream-of-consciousness, especially) must have rubbed off. Ellmann’s wife was also a celebrated academic. Lucy grew up in a very erudite family, although Lucy Ellmann’s narrator (the wife of an academic and a one-time teacher herself) operates not so much by stream-of-consciousness as cluttered free association. Think, perhaps, of Gracie Burns relating an endless story. Hence—a few pages after she’s said that her whole life has been a failure:

“[T]he fact that I don’t like licorice, I just like the way Good & Plenty look, though sometimes they look like microbes, if you’re not careful, which is none too appetizing, gosh, Goshen, New Philadelphia, the fact that the stink that came out of that chicken place was a scandal long before the tornadoes, chickens by the trillion, the fact that the whole idea of keeping animals in such numbers is disgusting, disgusting, the fact that there’s something really sick about it, one hundred and ten billion chickens, zillion, trillion, trillium, Goldfinger, the goose that laid the golden egg, the fact that trillium’s the state flower, frillium, brillium, fritillaries, ‘twas brillig and the slithy toves, trivium, trivia, the fact that Ohio is like a trillium petal hanging off Lake Erie, the fact that the chicken factory used slave labor too, undocumented, underage Guatemalans, child slaves, slave children the fact that I feel like going over there right now and giving them a piece of my mind….”

The fact is that most of the story is composed of a one thousand-page sentence, the fact is that most of the transitions begin with “the fact…,” the fact is that this middle-aged woman raises chickens (for the eggs) to help with her baking business, the fact is that she is very insecure; the fact is that she’s spending her entire life trying to make everyone else happy, the fact is that she’s easily embarrassed, the fact is that she has never gotten over her mother’s death at an early age from a botched hospital operation, the fact is that she has some of the most vivid dreams of any character in any novel you will ever encounter; but—and these may be the most important aspects of her mothering: her concern for her children and her husband, the fact is that she is the epitome of all mothers these days as soon as their children go off to school. Will they return? Will they be shot by some right-wing MAGA wing nut (“I’m always scared that they get shot,”) a worry earlier generations of parents did not have. She’s legitimately worried that Trump will nuke the world but relieved that her parents didn’t live long enough to see the way he’s sucked the air out of everyone’s life.

Her mind has the elasticity of a gigantic rubber band, with free associations constantly juxtaposing family life and movie pots (dozens of them), song lyrics, novels, especially-so-called children’s novels such as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Little House on the Prairie, but also Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, plus an entire array of writers and literary works, from Jane Austin to Anne Frank, Doris Lessing, Masters & Johnson, Emily Dickinson, King Lear, John Brown to mention a few in her encyclopedic associations as “the historian of [her] own life.” Puns (“the right to bare arms”); fears that carry over to her children (the first word spoken by one of them was “dangerous”); constant worries about whether she is a good mother (“motherhood is just impossible”); worries that all involved parents share (the environment, the infrastructure, gun violence); all tied into the last couple of years in our Trumpian neurosis.

Then, to top this all off in this delicious narrative, there’s a curious secondary story (told in very brief sections of a page or two) appearing every forty or fifty pages about a female mountain lion whose three newly-born cubs are whisked away from her when she leaves them for a few minutes to scrounge some food for herself. The cubs become emblematic of every mother’s worry that her children will be kidnapped. The mountain lion wanders for days, or possibly weeks, trying to find her cubs, and the fact is that as readers we ask ourselves what the hell these brief inserts in the narrative (told in complete sentences with standard paragraphs and punctuation) have to do with our pie-baking daughter/wife/mother narrator until the surprising final pages when the mountain lion is sighted in various communities in Ohio, including the one where most of the story takes place.

That’s as far as I can go in describing Lucy Ellmann’s brilliant novel (“a brick of a novel” as her publisher described it to me) that has been listed as a finalist for the Man Booker Award, the United Kingdom’s most prestigious literary prize. Nor will I tell you what the title means.

The fact is, it should win that award.

Ducks, Newburyport.
Lucy Ellmann. 
Biblioasis (Windsor, Ontario).
1029 pp., $19.99.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.