For the last five years, I have succeeded in reading all shortlisted books for the prize before the winner was announced. In the past couple of years, I have managed to cram in the longlist as well. This year I failed. And the reason is Ducks, Newburyport.
Ducks, Newburyport is long, sitting at around 1,000 pages. It’s also a very demanding read. With a small handful of interruptions, it’s one uninterrupted stream of consciousness with no periods or paragraph breaks to give you time to breath. I have made it a third of the way through so far and unfortunately am unlikely to get further before the announcement of the winner tomorrow.
And this is a pity. Because Ducks, Newburyport is incredible. And I think it should win.
Ellmann has done something in this book that I don’t think I’ve seen before. She has taken a character (an unnamed woman in Ohio juggling her family commitments and home-based pie baking services, building up to a cocktail party she is not looking forward to) and rendered her perfectly on the page. In essence, the whole book is this woman’s thoughts as she is having them, so it’s almost entirely either her responding to stimuli such as news or what’s go on around her, or free-wheeling associations between ideas and memories prompted by the thought immediately prior. There’s virtually no narrative.
The entire exercise could have been a disaster. I don’t much like stream-of-consciousness writing at the best of times, and I was skeptical that anyone could sustain compelling prose of this sort for so long. Ellmann manages to do so (with the obvious caveat that I’m a third of the way through). Her character is captivating and funny and feels utterly real.
The obvious point of comparison is with Ulysses. Ellmann’s father, Richard Ellmann, wrote probably the definitive biography of Joyce and I can hardly imagine his daughter is unfamiliar with the work. But whereas Ulysses puts weight on style and wears its literary influences on its sleeve, Ellmann’s style is far more subtle, revolving around choice turns of phrase and never losing sight of the person at its heart. It’s remarkable. And I think one of the finest pieces of writing I’ve read in years.
I have nothing more to say. Ducks, Newburyport is superb. Easily my favourite book this year from on the shortlist and off it. Possibly my favourite book of the past five years. And I am looking forward to continuing to enjoy its company for the remaining two thirds. Much as I dislike rooting for a book I haven’t finished, the experience of reading this is simply too good to rush.