Monday, 23 December 2013

The Elusive Language of Ducks by Judith White (Vintage 2013)

I’ve always been quite fond of ducks; dead and alive.  My dad shot ‘em, and when I was a kid I helped pluck ‘em.  I was fascinated with their innards; their long strings of intestines all balled up inside that I pulled out of their carcass into a hole dug in the backyard.  These days I appreciate them alive.  When I was a student in Dunedin I used to like walking through the gardens.  I would listen to the ducks quaking amongst themselves; they would waddle along the paths alongside the pensioners from the council flats by the River Leith who were making their way to New World by cutting through the gardens.  Hannah, the lead character in White’s novel, also likes ducks, well, one in particular that her husband gives her when she is grieving for her mother who died recently.  As the muscovy duck grows it becomes a reflection of Hannah’s emotional wellbeing, she also projects her feelings onto the duck, and at times the duck talks to Hannah.

The novel is about the reevaluation of life that comes after bereavement.  Hannah questions her love for her husband, Simon.  She relates the beginning of their relationship and marriage, and deliberates the fact that they didn’t have children.  Hannah also reflects on other people she has loved over her life, such as her mother, and the increasingly fraught relationship she has with her sister.  The novel meanders through the emotional mind field of the past which brings along a few surprises, revelations of things not previously acknowledged or said, and how a duck comes between Hannah and the other people she cares for.  There is humour in the book as well.  The duck tries to ‘have relations’ with Hannah and she fights the duck away.  She finally resorts to buying white pillows for the duck to…um…release some tension. 

Because of the content, there isn’t a huge narrative drive with the book, rather you’re reading to find what amends Hannah can make with the past and those around her, and what decisions will shape her future, how she will disperse her anxiety.  The structure is fragmented; sections within the chapters are very short which takes a bit to settle into to, and I didn’t feel completely engaged with the novel until I was three quarters through.  But I think this has to do with my input as a reader rather than any misgivings with the writing.  I feel like you have to be at the same life stage as Hannah to fully engage with her emotional wellbeing and anxieties to be able to appreciate how she sieves through her past.

The novel is ultimately about choosing what you have to let go of in order to move on.  The book is very contemporary – it details the Christchurch earthquakes (Simon was on a contract down there during the February quake), which triggers the reader’s own memories, and reflections, and also reflects Hannah’s emotional turmoil.  If I had any criticism it would be that there were perhaps too many descriptions about duck’s feathers, but then again, I’ve perhaps just plucked a few too many.
Have a happy holiday season my fellow book geeks.  I’m ‘down south’ for the week with family, and will be back to book geekery in the New Year.

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