Friday, 15 November 2019

Book review: Ducks, Newburyport, Lucy Ellman (2019)

Newcomerstown is located approximately equidistant from Columbus (the capital of Ohio), Cleveland, OH, and Pittsburg, PA. Newcomerstown is about 105 miles, or 170 kilometres, from Columbus.

That’s a good morning’s drive in an average car going an average speed on the highway, and the protagonist of Ellman’s novel, through whom most of the narrative is focalised and who lives in Newcomerstown, makes cakes on a commercial basis when she is not looking after her children and her husband. Other parts of the novel are focalised through the mind of a mountain lion (a cougar). Ohio is about twice the size of Tasmania but it has a population about half as large as Australia’s so, by Aussie standards, it is small and densely populated. There’s not much vacant land there, you would think, for a cougar to cover.

If you were to try to come up with an overarching theme for the novel it would have to be “motherhood” but to distil everything this amazing novel contains into one word would fail to do it justice. I have read some reviews of this book and the one from the Guardian was a bit discouraging but I think that the importance of this book was lost on their reviewer. In fact I’d bet $100 that she didn’t read the book all the way through. Her take was puzzling, as though Ellman had tired her out or something.

In my case, I was completely blown away by Ellman’s prose. She has taken the Molly Bloom section of Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ (1922) and given us her response to it in the same form as Joyce devised roughly a century ago. The stream-of-consciousness style of Ellman’s book is pure Joyce and it is great to see someone try to go down that path again, since the mainstream nowadays seems to reflect a change in popular tastes. Literary fiction is, now, just one of a number of equally well-patronised genres that vie for supremacy in an expanding market. Our appetite for books seems to have risen, and we are able to buy works in any number of subgenres that people talk about online.

But to say it is “literary fiction” doesn’t mean to imply the novel lacks suspense. Not at all. The payoff is strong if you persevere, I guarantee it. And the secondary themes that the book explores are as topical as anything that might be found in the narrative of a romance or in a crime novel.

Part of the magic of Ellman’s book lies in the subtle poetry she uses to achieve her aims. This is not a book with pat answers. The differences you discern between the children of the narrator (who is not named) are a sign of the effort the author has expended to make sure that life, in her book, is not squeezed into a small box to be offered up in some incredible, narrow version palatable to only a small part of the community. Gillian is quite different from Stacy (who is 16 at the time the action takes place, at the end of winter and the beginning of spring in a year after Donald Trump was elected), and both of them are different from the narrator who, for her part, is different from her own sister and from her own mother. This book has an overt feminist bias but it is, nevertheless, imbued with characters who reflect all the diversity of life.

The story builds slowly and you are given the opportunity to make up a form for each character who appears in it. Scraps of perceptions and recounts of events mix with dreams and memories to create a rich tapestry of signification where, in a fully realised world, the action takes place. You will love this book. Give it a chance to work its magic.

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