Audiobook review – “Ducks, Newburyport” by Lucy Ellmann

I reached a reading milestone recently – I finished Ducks, Newburyport. This humungous novel, which clocks in at a whopping 1030 pages (paperback) is easily the longest book I have ever read. I listened to it on audio, brilliantly read by Stephanie Ellyne, and it lasted over 45 hours, easily the length of six or seven “normal” books. I started it around Christmas time I think, so it has taken me months. I would probably have got through it more quickly in ‘normal’ times as I would have listened to it while driving, but I have hardly driven at all this last year. Mostly I listened to it while cleaning the house, which seemed very appropriate.

The un-named central character and narrator is a middle-aged American woman living in Newcomerstown, Ohio. She is a mother of four, cancer survivor, former college lecturer, and self-employed baker, who makes pies for a number of local cafes and restaurants which she delivers each day. The novel is a written in a ‘stream of consciousness’ style, almost entirely in the present, and many of the sentences begin with the phrase “the fact that…” as she tells us about the various aspects of her life, her family, her husband, her dead parents, their parents, baking, her past career, her cancer and American society. The ‘action’, such as it is, takes place over a short period of time, but, let’s be clear, very little happens in this novel.

A big image for a very big book!

It has been criticised for its length; indeed, I read that Lucy Ellmann’s usual publisher, Bloomsbury, declined to publish it for this reason, so instead she went with a small independent, Galley Beggar Press, which is based in Norwich.

The themes of the novel are emptiness and loneliness in modern American life, the dilemmas of being a woman, motherhood, loss. Our narrator commentates scathingly on Trump, on guns, and on the violence in society. She bemoans the decline of childhood, how young people have been lost to technology, social media and advertising and the inequalities not just in American society, but across the world. Yet at the same time, she is a woman who wants the best for her children and therefore perpetuates those inequalities. The essential dilemma. She laments climate change and the loss of the natural world while also contributing to it with her own lifestyle. (As do almost all of us). Yet another modern dilemma. She loves her children, but has a somewhat estranged relationship with her eldest daughter, Stacey, who has a different father to her three siblings.

Mostly, the narrator is grieving; there are frequent pained references to “Mommy”. Her mother died some years earlier after a long illness and the narrator cannot let go of her feeling that she should have done more for her mother, and, mostly, that she misses her terribly. The loss continues to blight her life, and she feels deeply the lack of nurturing she has in her own life. She seems to have a good and loving relationship with her husband, bridge engineer Leo, but it cannot make up for the loss of mother.

There is a parallel story going on in the narrative; a female mountain lion roams Ohio, creating fear throughout the state and leading to a frenzy of trackers and gun-owners who try to hunt her down. She is simply looking for food for her cubs and the reduced wild territory available to her means she trespasses on human occupied land. Our narrator is aware of the lion and fears for her children’s safety, while also virtue-signalling and taking positions on habitat destruction for wildlife. The cubs are captured and taken to the zoo, but the mountain lion continues to search, ceaselessly. Her drive to mother is all-encompassing.

This novel is profound and if you can stick with it, it will reward you handsomely. There is so much complexity, it is so multi-layered. The length also means we bond quite closely with the narrator, in a way that I don’t think would have happened if it had been shorter.

I recommend this book highly, while recognising that few will have the time and opportunity to embrace it. Take a year, six months at least. Get the audio – it is read brilliantly and you can at least do the vacuuming/ironing/cooking as you do so!

New rules for life?

I dip into self-help books from time to time and have a reviewed a few on here, from Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying, which aims to improve our relationship with the things in our home, to Big Magic: Creative Living beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert, which helped me to change my mindset about my right to be creative and to think of myself in that way. Both very powerful. Over the last few weeks I have been listening to Matt Haig’s Notes on a Nervous Planet (audiobooks seems to take me much longer to get through), which I have found immensely enjoyable. I’d even go so far as to say it was inspirational. I also picked up Jordan Peterson’s much-hyped 12 Rules for Life: An antidote to chaos although I’m afraid I found it quite turgid and didn’t get very far before I had to take it back to the library for the next person on the reserve list.

So, I originally planned for this post to be a compare and contrast between the two, but it’s going to focus more on the Haig, which, from what I read, was better anyway. Matt Haig has suffered with depression and anxiety for much of his life and it sounds as if this has at times been debilitating. Mental illness is a huge topic of conversation at the moment, rightly so, and it is very much a spectrum from occasionally feeling down or going through periods of stress and anxiety, to full-blown depression that afflicts people for years, to suicide. Matt Haig does not use this book directly to examine or discuss his own battles with depression, it’s not a memoir, but he does refer to it throughout as a way of illustrating his points.

Matt Haig’s book is more about how modern life is placing almost unbearable pressures on human beings today. He is particularly concerned about young people, and the impact of social media on their mental health. Social media forces us all into unrealistic comparisons where we will inevitably fall short. And the fact that we are constantly connected, constantly reachable and how it is so difficult to ‘switch off’ (both literally and figuratively) makes so many of us vulnerable. It is ironic that at a time when we have more ‘friends’ and followers than ever before, we seem to be more lonely than ever. This topic has been in the news again this week as new research undertaken by the BBC is revealing the extent of loneliness felt amongst young people in particular.

Notes On A Nervous Planet is, in my view, required reading, especially for young people. There are lots of people on my Christmas list who will be getting copies. I listened to it on audiobook and found Matt’s lovely, warm voice, made it particularly compelling. I will  now buy the book, however, it’s one I’d definitely like to read again.

By contrast, the little bit I read of Jordan Peterson’s left me rather cold. I think with self-help books, there are just the ones you like and the ones you don’t, and I’m afraid 12 Rules for Life probably falls into the latter category. His rules include “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping”, “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something that you don’t” and “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding”. I’m sure there is some real wisdom in some of these more cryptic headlines, but there are a lot of words to plough through before you get to it and, sadly, it did not resonate with me. I fell asleep several evenings, just reading the (very long) Foreword! I’ll give it another go, when my turn comes around for the reservation, but I’ll not be rushing out to buy it. As a general rule, I don’t do very well with ‘Rules’ and prescriptions, particularly for something as chaotic as life.

If you have read either of these books, I’d be interested to know what you think.

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