“Ducks, Newburyport” by Lucy Ellmann is a big book, in several ways.
At 1,020 pages, the novel — which has a North American release date of Sept. 10 — is much too large to slip into your pocket.
“Ducks, Newburyport” also has a literary reputation that has grown much bigger since Tuesday, when it was placed on the short list for the Booker Prize, the United Kingdom’s most exclusive award for fiction.
In addition, the novel features stream-of-consciousness narration and uses either one or, by some counts, eight sentences to tell its entire story. Even if it’s the latter, those are some big sentences.
But at this point, when most locals haven’t yet read the book, it is the novel’s title that looms largest of all, raising the question of its connection to this region.
The answer is that “Ducks, Newburyport” refers to an incident in which the narrator’s mother was saved from drowning as a little girl, after she followed some ducks into a pond in Newburyport and was rescued by her sister.
Ellmann, who was born in 1956 in Illinois and currently lives in Scotland, has published six previous novels. A biographical essay at the British Council’s website describes her as “one of modern literature’s most well-kept secrets.”
Ellmann’s first novel, 1988’s “Sweet Desserts,” won an award from The Guardian newspaper. It has been described as a semi-autobiographical account of the author’s teen years in England, where she moved with her parents when she was 13.
There is some basis for believing that the titular incident in the pond could also be based on fact because Ellmann’s mother was born in Newburyport, as Mary Donoghue.
According to her obituary from 1989, when she died at age 68, Mary Ellmann also had a sister, Kathleen Byrnes, who was living in Beverly.
Mary attended the University of Massachusetts and received master’s and doctoral degrees in English at Yale, before marrying the literary biographer and critic Richard Ellmann in 1949.
Mary also became a professor and literary critic and published a book of feminist literary criticism in 1968, “Thinking About Women,” which Kirkus Reviews described as “combative, demanding.”
Richard Ellmann was famous for his biographies and essays about the giants of modern Irish literature, particularly William Butler Yeats, Oscar Wilde and James Joyce.
Joyce used stream of consciousness extensively in his novel “Ulysses” and once wrote in a letter that his novel “Finnegans Wake,” which was published in 1939, “ends in the middle of a sentence and begins in the middle of the same sentence.”
Whatever Lucy Ellmann may or may not owe to her parents’ scholarly concerns or Joyce’s techniques and experiments, the stream of consciousness in “Ducks, Newburyport” belongs to a mother of four in Ohio and touches on an encyclopedic range of topics from her everyday experience.
Reviewers and readers in online forums have expressed delight in the book, which has a Canadian publisher, Biblioasis.
Giselle Stevens, director of the Newburyport Public Library, said that five libraries in the Merrimack Valley consortium currently have Ellmann’s new novel on order, and she expects to receive a copy in Newburyport soon.
“We generally order anything that’s on that short list,” she said.
Stevens said that she heard that “Ducks, Newburyport” is “long and challenging” and has been compared to David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel, “Infinite Jest,” which also uses experimental techniques.
“I don’t know anyone who has actually read it yet, but I’m sure now that it’s been short-listed, it will be popular,” Stevens said.