In her new novel, Lucy Ellmann follows in the footsteps of James Joyceby Arabella Byrne / July 17, 2019 / Leave a comment
America is the land of the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls and Ground Zero. Lucy Ellmann’s 900-page, single-sentence novel is as forbidding and magnificent as any of these. Written through the eyes of a pie-baking Ohioan housewife, Ducks, Newburyport whisks the reader through the rapids of modern, female consciousness. It plunges the reader into the mind of an everyday woman and mother doing her best in a world that respects neither women nor mothers.
Zigzagging across the contents of Hillary Clinton’s handbag (hot sauce, apparently), childbirth, cancer, fast-food, cherry pies, death, shopping malls, bereavement, spaghetti, Medicare, Melania, environmentalism and guns, the novel also includes the story of a mountain lioness protecting her cubs in a hostile world.
Anger radiates off the page as the protagonist muses of Donald Trump that “golf is the only thing keeping us out of nuclear warfare” or that Ohio’s polluted rivers “sure take the fun out of fishing.” Indignant and humorous yes, but also moving. In her treatment of motherhood and domesticity, Ellmann effectively mixes modern satire with novelistic depth: the refrain of the protagonist’s mother’s death hovers like a shadow over the narrative, spilling out in alliterative and associative bursts: “at the center of the vortex is always Mommy, tornado, waterspout, dust devil, the fact that moms are at the center of everything of course, motherland, mother nature, mother tongue, Mother Goose, mother vinegar, Mommy, mama, so why should my mom be any different…”
Ellmann has produced a domestic epic of modern American life in the Trump era. Stylistically, though, it is not for everyone. Although surprisingly readable for such an ambitious work, it requires a special type of readerly persistence that Ellmann’s father, the Joyce scholar Richard Ellmann, would have recognised. Truly, an antidote to the Twitter age.
by Lucy Ellmann (Galley Beggar Press, £16.99)