Review: Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann (2019)


‘… I dreamt last night about somebody complaining that he owned a “lesser Cézanne” while I was tearing heartshaped buttons off a shirt, and something about a ferret, the fact that my dreams have become more practical and less expansive, I think, since we got poorer, the fact that I should be swinging wild but instead my dreams are just about tidying the hen coop or unloading the dishwasher, or losing my address book, or I’m cooking noodles for everybody and Leo has a plane to catch in half an hour and there’s no taxi, or I find myself on a bicycle carrying a huge box, the fact that once I dreamt I ate one tiny piece of ham, and that was it, that was the whole dream, the fact that I dream all the wrong stuff and remember all the wrong stuff, what a goofball, “a genuine idiot,” the fact that why do I remember that Amish wool shop and not my mom, …’

LATTICING one cherry pie after another, an Ohio housewife tries to bridge the gaps between reality and the torrent of meaningless info that is the United States of America. She worries about her children, her dead parents, African elephants, the bedroom rituals of “happy couples”, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and how to hatch an abandoned wood pigeon egg. Is there some trick to surviving survivalists? School shootings? Medical debts? Franks ’n’ beans?

A scorching indictment of America’s barbarity, past and present, and a lament for the way we are sleepwalking into environmental disaster, Ducks, Newburyport  is a heresy, a wonder—and a revolution in the novel.

It’s also very, very funny.


I have wanted to read this for a while, but I knew there was no way I could read it in one go without getting seriously behind on all the other reading I wanted to do this year. It made sense, therefore, to split it into manageable monthly sections, which I have listed below in case anyone wants to take on the challenge in 2022!

Firstly, I can definitely recommend this tactic for tackling those chonksters that you’ve been meaning to get around to – it really works! I was worried that dipping in and out of the book would make it hard to concentrate, or that I’d struggle to get back into it after a break, especially because of Ducks’ notoriously idiosyncratic style. However, it wasn’t a problem at all, and I found a page or two enough to resume my immersion in the protagonist’s mesmerising narration. This book is quite magical – it has a hypnotic effect, and after each section I found myself echoing the thought patterns of the main character (lots of ‘the fact that’!). This is stream-of-consciousness on a level not even Joyce or Woolf could have envisaged – it feels like a mind emptying itself onto the page – and yet it is, I promise, still accessible (and I speak as someone who loves Woolf but can’t do Joyce – sorry!).

The breathless, single-sentence style, filled with lists and asides and quirky in-jokes, belies the fact that (sorry, again) there is a narrative depth, a story, which emerges little by little, and which, by the end, I found myself completely invested in. I don’t know how Ellmann managed to write a 1,000 page novel that somehow feels like a single coherent story, with a gripping finale that I was NOT expecting, but she does, and it is glorious.

If you’ve had this one on your radar for a while and been put off by its size, I urge you to pick it up (carefully – I had several near misses reading this behemoth in bed and almost dropping it on my face) and let its rhythmic, funny, often quite moving sentence unspool around you (it is not all in the same style, there are other delights awaiting you, but The Sentence is the main thing) – you won’t regret it. Thanks also to my Twitter friend and reading buddy Jackie, who was on the end of a message whenever I needed to check in with her about the latest section!

Monthly Sections

January – to page 83

February – to page 167

March – to page 249

April – to page 333

May – to page 415

June – to page 499

July – to page 581

August – to page 665

September – to page 747

October – to page 831

November – to page 913

December – to end

Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann is published by Galley Beggars and is available to purchase here.


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