Chair of the 2019 Booker Prize judges, Peter Florence, said:
“The common thread is our admiration for the extraordinary ambition of each of these books. There is an abundance of humour, of political and cultural engagement, of stylistic daring and astonishing beauty of language. Like all great literature, these books teem with life, with a profound and celebratory humanity. We have a shortlist of six extraordinary books and we could make a case for each of them as winner, but I want to toast all of them as “winners”. Anyone who reads all six of these books would be enriched and delighted, would be awe-struck by the power of story, and encouraged by what literature can do to set our imaginations free.”
Chair of the 2019 Booker Prize judges, Peter Florence, said:
“If you only read one book this year, make a leap. Read all 13 of these. There are Nobel candidates and debutants on this list. There are no favourites; they are all credible winners. They imagine our world, familiar from news cycle disaster and grievance, with wild humour, deep insight and a keen humanity. These writers offer joy and hope. They celebrate the rich complexity of English as a global language. They are exacting, enlightening and entertaining. Really – read all of them.”
One Booker shortlist later, Galley Beggar were proved correct. Ellmann’s novel isn’t perfect, and it may not take the prize, but in a world where Ian McEwan is still at large, something introspective and richly painted is a tonic for us all... Ducks, Newburyport is keen to struggle against the grain, make you feel the labour it’s taking on. Its central monologue is repetitive and sour, and that’s apt, now that America, like an unhappy family, seems short on love for itself.
It is impossible to review this novel without acknowledging that most other people will never find time to read it either. It is enormous – a four-inch spine, 1,000 pages, straining the straps of the big black handbag I bought years ago to contain all my own offspring’s detritus. It is unapologetically difficult as well – most of those pages are occupied by a single sentence dictating the narrator’s inner life, with a few conventionally punctuated interludes that describe a female mountain lion and her cubs. The extremity of Ducks’ ambition was too much for Ellmann’s former publisher Bloomsbury, which passed on this, her eighth novel... Ducks is asking us to imagine what a total, unboundaried empathy with another person could feel like; it is chasing the white whale of a single consciousness in a single span of time. I suspect that within its own terms, the fact that it finishes at all counts as a kind of failure, an acceptance of the limits it is trying to refuse. Its inevitably defeated readers can consider themselves proof of Ellmann’s success in her extraordinary project.
Unless you too are a nervous, baking-enthusiast Ohio housewife it’s fair to say your sympathy will wax and wane a little as the book goes on; but Ellmann’s Joycean achievement is to drag you along, complicitly, in her endurance marathon of anxiety and trivia — not least, of course, because you’ve no idea what might or might not turn out to be trivia (‘ducks, Newburyport’).
It’s a colossal feat. And if you didn’t exactly see it cluttering the beach reads lists this summer — it may yet be more read about than read — it’s now been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (announced next month), and frankly that’s no less than it deserves.
Ducks, Newburyport was turned down by Ellmann’s longtime publishers Bloomsbury but snapped up by the Norwich-based independent publishers Galley Beggar Press. All credit to them for bringing this wonderful book into the world. No other novel published this year is likely to have a stronger claim on the attention of contemporary or future readers.
Ducks, Ellmann’s eighth novel, is touted as a “modernist masterpiece”. Certainly, modernism is having one hell of a literary moment with the experimental, punctuation-free fiction of Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones and Mathias Enard’s Zone; Olivia Laing’s and Rachel Cusk’s responses to individualism versus information overload in Crudo and the Outline trilogy... Yet it is the great female modernist writers of the early 20th century that Ellmann fits with most assuredly. Her detailed observations on time and memory evoke Katherine Mansfield’s short stories, her interior soliloquies Dorothy Richardson’s epic Pilgrimage series; but the lodestar is Virginia Woolf. In Ducks, Newburyport Ellmann has created a wisecracking, melancholy Mrs Dalloway for the internet age.
This book is stuck between insanity and genius, arousing conflicting responses in the reader. I toiled through it, yet missed our heroine afterwards, which might show Ellmann’s brilliance in executing her eccentric project, or just be an example of Stockholm syndrome. It brings to mind Samuel Johnson on the Giant’s Causeway: “Worth seeing, yes; but not worth going to see.”
To put it another way, you’d have to be mad to read this book, but you might be glad you did.
This is a book about the chaos of consciousness and the artificiality of traditional narrative; it’s about, as the narrator says, “the fact that there’s a lot you just have to blank out if you want to get through life”. Our brains are constantly at work, with memories, dreams, images, scenes from films and books bubbling up and interrupting the flow of our thoughts. Ducks, Newburyport tries to capture the reality of what it’s like to be trapped in the prison of a mind... There were a few dark moments while working my way through Ducks, Newburyport, where death seemed positively appealing as I was faced with another page of dense type, another list, another “the fact that”; but this is a novel that rewards perseverance, is truly unique, and feels like an absence in your life when you finish it.
Like the Ohio River, the novel just keeps flowing, and we get the debris: lists of shopping and place names, news of environmental degradation, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Hollywood film plots and film stars, James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, "open carry" gun culture, Obamacare, the narrator’s children, her husband, her ex-husband, her chickens, her pies, her dead mother, her gun-toting neighbour Ronny who wears a Make America Great Again hat, and everything in between.... In the novel’s latter pages, various strands – tributaries – start to conjoin, and, bizarrely, some of the events – involving the mountain lion, Ronny the gunman, and the narrator’s daughter, Stacey – coalesce in a denouement that contains some gripping and absurd drama. Still, even now, in recovery, I can’t say for certain what this novel’s all about. Moreover, I can’t say if it’s a masterpiece or a terrible splurge of fearful polemic and word association. But, to hell with it, I certainly enjoyed the ride.
There’s so much more to this amazing novel. Undoubtedly it’s a long read, but it is never less than rewarding to engage with the observations of this companionable narrator. The fact that the writing has a beautiful cadence and rhythm. The fact that I haven’t even mentioned all the hilarious, salty comments about Trump (“Super callous fragile racist sexist Nazi Potus”). The fact that this isn’t just one of the outstanding books of 2019, it’s one of the outstanding books of the century, so far.
In many ways, the book reads like a culmination. This is partly because of its extraordinary length and bold rhetorical devices, but also because it brings together elements from all Ellmann’s previous books: her great love of lists; the endless references to popular culture; the roarings and forebodings and glorious meanderings. I could tell you the significance of the ducks of the title, but that would cheat you of one of the great pleasures of the novel, which is just sticking with it and allowing the author to determine the pace and rhythm at which you read. “This book will either be a success or a failure,” remarks one character. “Nobody wants to hear that,” responds the narrator. Fair enough. Success? Failure? Triumph.