Reviewed by Jen Severn
Present circumstances have allowed me the time and space to finish Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann. I was intrigued when I heard that it comprises just one sentence of stream-of-consciousness (one review said ‘Ulysses has nothing on this’), and when my brother called to ask for ideas for my birthday present in November, it was my first thought. But somehow I’d missed the detail that it’s over a thousand pages long.
Firstly, it’s not quite true—the ‘one sentence’ bit. Ducks, Newburyport‘s stream-of-consciousness is of an unnamed narrator, an Ohio baker, wife and mother who runs a small business from home, supplying pies to local cafés and restaurants. There’s no plot as such, but a storyline and characters do start to emerge as she grapples with the needs and problems of her four kids, her dealings with her customers, a needy guy who’s being overly helpful delivering chicken feed to her door, her dreams, old black-and-white movies and movie stars, interspersed with shopping lists and pepperings of ‘Mommy’—her mother died young.
It’s a strange relationship between reader and protagonist, being inside their head all the time. I began the book thinking, ‘Now this is interesting and ambitious but can I do a thousand pages of it?’ But then I started to really like her, and not just because of her views on Trump, religion and gun culture. Soon I was ensconced.
Not quite all one sentence? Every hundred pages or so, the stream of consciousness breaks off and we’re given a page or two of an episode in the life of a cougar lioness and her cubs. These episodes are written in sentences and paragraphs and are as compelling as the rich inner life of the narrator. Not quite a spoiler, but the lives of our narrator and the lioness do intersect—eventually, obliquely.
So, I loved it. And, even better, now I don’t need to read Ulysses.