Stream-of-consciousness Books

Chickens, pies and the mountain lion: Lucy Ellmann’s ‘Ducks, Newburyport’ reviewed by Latha Anantharaman

How often do you read a story that goes on for 1,000 pages, practically all in one sentence, and yet when it’s over you don’t heave a sigh of relief, and instead want to keep listening to the narrator to find out what happened, did the kids get over their fright, did the sulky teenager get on better with her mother afterwards, did the mother gain a bit of weight and energy and become famous because of what happened and sell more pies and raise more free-range chickens and did they make enough extra money to fix the rotting windows and put a stronger lock on the door so that such a thing would never happen again, not that this stream of consciousness narrative by an Ohio housewife, married to a rather sweet professor who specialises in bridge engineering, is in any way a self-indulgent domestic rant about pies and chickens and kitchens and dropping off children and picking them up, because for one thing there is more of the history of the atrocities committed by the white man against the Native American tribes than you would study in 12 years of American schooling, and you wonder, though rather happily, why all that is in there, is it because the narrator’s first husband was partly or wholly Native American, and Stacey, the sulky daughter, is herself exploring how far she is white and how far she is not, all the while the middle two children worry more about whether their preoccupied and forgetful mom will remember their birthdays, and the youngest, the happy Jake, runs around topless at the supermarket, and for another, like all rational human beings, especially human beings raising their young, she is appalled at the way anyone at all has the right to walk around with a gun in Ohio, and in most of the U.S. for that matter, and the level of industrial contamination in water bodies and soil bothers her no end, especially since so much of it is done on purpose, and in the meantime she worries about a mountain lion that has been sighted here and there, and whether it’s safe to leave their new rescue dog chained outside where he might get eaten, but what else can she do, since the dog won’t submit to life indoors, whereas she would like never to go out at all, having been shy much of her life, and rather fearful, as what rational human being wouldn’t be, given the dangers outside, though her own insecurities began when she was a teenager and just about to get sulky and rebellious herself, when her mother suffered a stroke and had to have an operation on her brain and was never quite the same again, and she still misses her mother all the time, so these two forces pull her in two directions, the loss of her mother and the growing distrust in her daughter, which she doesn’t know how to overcome, and she grieves that she has been an inadequate mother even to little Jake because when he was a baby, she had cancer and couldn’t cuddle him the way he ought to have been cuddled, though he seems fine, and yet you wonder how she can tell, she seems to be unable to locate him half the time, her mind wandering in and out of the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder, maybe because of the chickens and the pies and the mountain lion, and Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and black-and-white movies starring Bette Davis, and musicals like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers that have a plot that especially a woman would view very differently today, and it turns out that musicals and scary boys are bothering Stacey more than the inadequacies of her mother, though all that is stirred up in family therapy, as it should be, and through all this are woven rich allusions that you spot immediately (“expletive deleted”) and ones that you half-remember from somewhere (“picnic, lightning”) and every 100 pages or so, the human mother’s narrative is interrupted by the life of the mountain lion, actually a lioness, who is raising her three little cubs until one day, while she’s out capturing their family dinner, a pair of do-gooders find the “abandoned” cubs and take them away in a car, leaving the lioness frantic, and she wanders all over Ohio and into the margins of Pennsylvania and whatever that state is on the other side of Ohio looking for them, and you know as you’re reading all this that the trajectories of the lioness and the Ohio mother must converge at some point, the vanishing point you might call it, since you never quite reach it, but before that point an entirely different thing happens that has been foreshadowed all along, so brilliantly, that Ellmann, in this compassionate and moving and funny crumb quilt of a novel, keeps you enchanted till the very last word and full stop.

The writer is author of Three Seasons: Notes from a Country Year.

Ducks, Newburyport; Lucy Ellmann, Picador India, ₹999


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