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Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann, review: could this 1,000-page epic win the Booker Prize? 

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Ducks, Newburyport is Lucy Ellmann's seventh novel
Ducks, Newburyport is Lucy Ellmann's seventh novel Credit: Getty Europe/Galley Beggar

Lucy Ellmann’s seventh novel, Ducks, Newburyport, is not what the French call a roman de gare. It has 1,000 pages, weighs 1.1kg, and – in the larger of its two spliced narratives – is one vast sentence long. Maybe these facts seem trivial, but try reading it on holiday, or a commute. Bloomsbury, Ellmann’s usual publisher, cased the market and rejected the book. Galley Beggar Press, a smaller outfit, were keen to show better taste. 

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. It has a double plot, with strands that gradually intertwine: the major one is an internal monologue by an Ohioan housewife, who has four kids, toiling away at home, baking pies and darning socks; the minor is the story of a female cougar, who has three cubs, out in the backlands of the state. 

Both are therefore portraits of motherhood: of those who protect the fragile things – children, creatures, the environment – that we hold, or should hold, dear. The cubs are accordingly drawn as cutesy, the kids merely “grouchy” from time to time. The worst of the latter is Stacy, a teenage eco-warrior on a soapbox about veganism and plastic waste. But she’s fundamentally good, her mother admits, and for those who harbour doubts, Stacy will prove her mettle near the end, when an overgrown incel threatens the family with a gun.

And so we drift in the mother’s head, a dark and witty place, listening to her muse on paella, light bulbs, the Quakers, Skype, all manner of minor things – and, in time, a cougar spotted nearby. Each thought begins with “the fact that”, a phrase you hear more than 19,000 times. Plenty of them are manic reflections on reflection gone awry: “the fact that the mainstream media are craphounds… the fact that I’ve been corrupted by the internet”. Some are what we secretly thrill to imagine, but never would dare to say: “the fact that maybe Sylvia Plath wouldn’t have killed herself if the weather was better… the fact that all that rain is kind of a shock to an American”.

The novel’s humour may be coy, but its politics are not. Our narrator, you gather, isn’t an environmentalist yet – well, give Stacy time – but her mental landscape is speckled with forest fires, mass extinctions and streams glowing with chemical light. There’s a hand-drawn map at the end of the novel that traces the cougar’s journey; it’s marked with all the local nuclear power plants, represented by human bones.

Stars, stripes and cherry pie: Ellmann's novel tackles life in modern American suburbia

Ellmann, in style and matter, often commits to obsessions like this. The star of her previous novel, Mimi (2013), could have been a prototype for our Ohioan: being a “Manhattan madwoman” and public-speaking coach, Mimi usually had an outburst – on feminism, rape or slavery – up at the tip of her tongue. When she got going, so did the prose. It tumbled on through list after list, a mass of verbal odds and sods, finally swelling into a huge appendix, stuffed with song lyrics, takeaway menus and recipes for the dishes that appear in the book.

Ellmann’s novels are like wannabe archives that she’s forcing to moonlight as tales told. Her characters spend them trying to fashion a moral centre, piece by spinning piece. The word “archive”, as Derrida noted, comes from the Greek arkheion, the home of the magistrates where official documents were held; in a literal sense, he concluded, “these documents speak the law”. Ducks, Newburyport, then, shows a mother endlessly reconstructing the laws of her life and her home. But America is “awash in information” yowling from its screens – TVs, computers, phones – which makes this ceaseless sentence, cranked along by commas, a fitting picture of her mental track.

And yet, because those sections are so enveloping, the cougar’s story reads as psychologically amiss. Ellmann’s lioness hates all men, not just for their guns and cruelty, but also “the noisy, smelly cars in which they [have] slashed and stabbed and scarred their way across the earth”. Is this first-person prose, or third? Animals don’t have ethics, merely love; this may in practice look the same, but a cougar can’t reflect that “men [are] so ignorant of secrecy or tact”. More than once, she pads past someone committing suicide and feels a pang of “disgust”. Mankind can often be inhumane, yes; but so are these snapshots of suffering men.

But 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. Welcome to a nation of “stupid soldiers” and “stupid Open Carry laws”, made for “stupid deadbeat dads” who try to shoot families in their homes – homes like this one in Ohio, where a woman is thinking her life away, and baking “stupid cakes, stupid pies, stupid, stupid cinnamon rolls”.

Ducks, Newburyport is published by Galley Beggar at £14.99. To order your copy for £13.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop