SCAN Book Club: Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann

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Ducks, Newburyport… you’d be quackers to miss it!

What would happen if you wrote down every single thought that popped into your head for a day? Noting every time you considered what to have for lunch, or mulled over wording for an assignment. Jotting down every lyric from ♫ Despacito  that got stuck going round in your head or recording every time you casually remembered getting pic n mix from Woolworths as a kid…

 It would make for quite a random book, wouldn’t it?

And yet, this pretty much sums up the premise of Ducks, Newburyport, the controversially Booker-nominated novel by Lucy Ellmann. It chronicles the day-to-day thoughts of a forty-something Ohio housewife as she goes about her everyday life; “shepherding” her children from A to B, baking countless cinnamon rolls and worrying about the past, present and future… sometimes simultaneously. 

Made up of just eight continuous sentences, and at nearly 1,020 pages long, this book is no small undertaking. It’s often filled with the protagonist’s worries about delivering her baked goods on time, ruminations about the potential threat to self-esteem posed by her teenage daughter’s “Morning Routine Video” obsession, as well as lengthy descriptions of the black-and-white films that she watches while she bakes.

 Also included, amongst the mundanity, however, are snippets from the news headlines of the day, family conversations and the central character’s reflections on issues such as climate change, Medicare and nationalism. 

It is these little gems, built over time, that not only begin to not only create a frankly frightening picture of contemporary America but completely change how you view the world too. Some will break your heart. 

Did you know, for example, that in America, firearms are the second leading cause of death for children and teens? Or that thanks to the 1970s dumping of toxic waste into the ocean by Teflon manufacturer DuPont, Ohio’s drinking water is now polluted with a litany of scary-sounding carcinogenic chemicals, including chloroform, bromodichloromethane and trichloroacetic acid? Or that 1 million sea birds are killed by marine plastic pollution annually, with over 50% of the world’s species estimated to be at risk of extinction?

It’s the scattering of these facts, along with the emerging picture of the protagonist’s tragic childhood – not to mention a pretty explosive ending – that make this book well worth a read and perhaps hint as to why it’s received its nomination. 

“And as for where the novel’s the seemingly random title of “Ducks, Newburyport” comes from… I guess you’ll have to read it to find out!

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