When I feel the urge to challenge myself with a monstrous book, page count is usually the last merit to sway my pick. Form and content would be leading forces. For everything over 600 pages I would most certainly avoid non-linear or multi-voice narrative, as flirt between past and present, if not delivered masterfully, can be tiresome. I love Faulkner and Pamuk, but imagine reading 800 pages of ‘As I Lay Dying’ or ‘My Name is Red’, respectively.
‘Ducks, Newburyport’ extended the literary boundaries of my reading perceptions. It seized me unprepared for its ambitious intentions, however, the diversion from my own comfort was much satisfying than what would one expect if briefly acquainted with the premise of the book.
Some of the well-know facts for ‘Ducks, Newburyport’: it’s a single sentence novel, just about 1000 pages long stream of consciousness of an unnamed Ohio housewife, who bakes pies for a living.
For the first 200 pages or so the reader is exposed to the random thoughts of this woman from the American Mid-West, whose line of thinking might not make much sense at first, but what’s peculiar about that detail is that these little notions don’t bore you, nor they make you feel as being stuck in someone’s head and finding no exit. The fact is, she offers multiple exits as her thoughts branch out yet to new horizons. The more one advances, the more the landscape of the narrative clears and reveals the characteristics of the person who is carrying us through.
The housewife doesn’t spare us from her most inner aches, anxieties, longings and everyday troubles. Some might call her uncontrolled talk neurosis, but I rather call it a sheer reflexion of American reality. She goes back and forth between the personal and the public trauma.
The gravity of her monologue lays on certain matters she often comes back to — her mother’s death, her own night dreams, her children and the society she belongs to. The narrator is well aware of the political currents of her surroundings, so she frequently renders her verdict on Trump and his policies, on gun violence, on racism, on episodes of atrocities in American History, on mass shootings, on environment mistreatment, on beauty YouTube influencers and so on. What crosses her mind encompasses the most outrageous events of our most recent history, thus the narrative could be read as a chronology of a decaying world… and that powerful inner voice is speaking while she bakes her pies. To avoid sinking the reader in a realm of darkness, the author, Lucy Ellman, very gently pushes the narrator’s thoughts in another direction and time and again uses benign humour to escape dramatizing.
This pie baker’s knowledge is not limited to current affairs but extends much beyond that, as she demonstrates abundant proficiency of culture, that being music, film and literature. Often in fact she compares her life with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book ‘Little House on the Praire’, or fascinates on film roles of Katherine Hepburn or Jane Fonda.
On top of all that there is a sub-plot about a lone mountain lioness that interconnects very elegantly with the main story plan.
This novel is rich, it’s a well of facts, some so incredible that I had to Google and sure enough they are all true, and outstanding fiction, written so skillfully that it doesn’t let you down even for a page.. Some critic enthusiasts already call ‘Ducks, Newburyport’ the great American novel of our time, others compare it with Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, I don’t have the audacity to call it either, but this surely is one hell of a enormously entertaining and honest piece of fiction.