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Ducks, Newburyport review: One extraordinary sentence 1,000 pages long

Lucy Ellmann has produced one of the outstanding books of the century so far

Ducks, Newburyport
Author: Lucy Ellmann
ISBN-13: 978-1910296967
Publisher: Galley Begar Press
Guideline Price: £14.99

Mathias Enard’s novel Zone consists of a single sentence lasting 512 pages, ending with a full stop. Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones has a single sentence lasting for 216 pages and ends unpunctuated, floating away on the Mayo breeze.

Now, in Ducks, Newburyport, Lucy Ellmann has written a continuous sentence (punctuated only by commas and ending with a full stop) which lasts for close to 1,000 pages, a total made difficult to calculate due to an auxiliary story which nuzzles into the main text every so often. This is written in a more conventional fashion, unlike every other part of the novel which works as a continuous flow of thoughts and associations; an approach that is not in any way gimmicky.

It is, instead, an extraordinary achievement of wit and imagination detailing the life and inner reasoning of a contemporary and conventional American woman who lives in Ohio with her husband and four children, the oldest of whom is from an earlier, much less successful marriage. Along with the details of her daily life – much of it spent making pies which she sells to local restaurants and cafes – she muses on films, music, animals and, eventually, just about every subject imaginable (there are, for example, several references to Ireland and a couple of mentions of lectures by Declan Kiberd).

In one of several disturbing sections of the novel, Ellman makes a telling comparison between Sand Creek and Sandy Hook

The manner in which the narrator’s thoughts are conveyed is the principal achievement of this astounding novel.

There is a complete sense of authenticity in the way that words get associated in her mind, a rolling catalogue of great humour and invention (always beginning with “the fact that”, a device that ought to become tiresome, but which never does): “the fact that you never expect people to keel over until they actually do, Howard Keel, Kellogg’s, head over heels, his head in his hands, hand in hand, hand over the loot . . . ”

Added to the mixture are references to clickbait which randomly occur throughout the text: “Six Reasons Your Eyes Are Tired”, “What Scientists Found Deep In The Ocean”. A further device used to great effect is the setting up of motifs which usually appear for the first time without any apparent context and then recur several more times, one of which creates an unexpected connection so, for example, the phrase “Jesus saved me” is used many times before the amusing truth of its real meaning becomes known.

Within all of this badinage and workaday detailing, other more serious purposes become clear as the narrator is increasingly concerned with the appalling history of brutality deployed to establish the United States and the continuation of that viciousness on an official level and among the enthusiastic proponents of gun ownership (the “open carry” movement is a particular source of revulsion for her).

In one of several disturbing sections of the novel, Ellman makes a telling comparison between Sand Creek and Sandy Hook. In the former, about 500 Cheyenne and Arapaho people (most of them women and children) were massacred by the US army, and in the latter, 26 people, 20 of them children, were shot by one man, an inconvenient fact denied by the pro-gun lobby who sought to suggest that it was a “false flag operation”.

Bewildering cruelty

The bewildering cruelty which manifests itself in so many aspects of US society is further explored in the more conventionally told story which is interlaced through the novel until it becomes a major part of the main text.

This concerns an Eastern Cougar who has recently given birth to cubs which are captured, thus forcing their mother to enter the proximity of people. There are excellent critiques of humans from the cougar’s perspective: “the lioness had never really studied these gangly creatures up close. Their vertiginous forms confused her. They seemed to have little connection to the earth, muscles gone to seed, spines brittle and inflexible, with arms vainly dangling at their sides.”

By the time this strand of the novel entwines with the lives of the main human characters, the novel has developed a linear narrative that seemed unlikely during much of the earlier part of the book, with its plotless but brilliant deliberations on the difficulties of being a parent, a daughter, the child of a much-missed mother and a multitude of commonplace topics.

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.