The Elusive Language of Ducks, by Judith White, (Vintage, 2013), 376 pp., $37.99
Judith White’s second novel, published 13 years after her acclaimed Across the Dreaming Night, features both her signature ability to sensitively evoke the interior lives of the broken, anxious and grieving, and her deft talent for juxtaposing the poignant with the comedic. At the centre of this quirky novel is the relationship between heroine Hannah and a Muscovy duck, given to her after the death of her mother. The duck is both companion and symbolic focal point, reminiscent of Paul Gallico’s fable The Snow Goose (1941).
White scores high on the idiosyncratic title stakes, rivalling the inventiveness of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog (2006) and Maria Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (2005). The test of a quirky title is that is must entice the reader with intriguing and not readily answered questions, and in this White immediately succeeds. What is the language of ducks? Why is it elusive? I want to know.
This gift for engaging titles is also apparent within The Elusive Language of Ducks. Each chapter is split into a series of vignettes, some as brief as a sentence and some a sustained incident or reflection, but all with an apposite title. The narrative moves between Hannah’s nurturing of the duck in the present and key moments in her past, in particular her close bond with her mother, her fraught history with her narcissistic sister Maggie, her imploding relationship with her secretive husband Simon, her emerging friendship with her sister’s husband Toby, and her brief affair with her neighbour Eric. One of the novel’s charms is the visual aesthetics, with the stylised tree and duck on the front cover repeated in black and white at the start of each chapter. This is certainly attractive, but also creates a physical and mental breathing space between chapters, giving the reader time to pause and connect what they have learned of Hannah’s past and present.
Hannah’s gentle, intelligent, wounded interior consciousness is the focal point throughout as she tentatively journeys towards healing. White’s frequently lyrical and poetic prose lifts the narrative beyond the well-worn themes of parental loss and marital tension, with Hannah’s reflections containing epiphanies about the mystery at the heart of things. In my favourite passage the specifics of caring for a duck and editing a text connect with local and international tragedies and a universal truth about both the natural world and the human condition. As the duck’s wings beat, stirring dust, paper and Hannah’s hair:
She had a swift insight into the nature of earthquakes, tsunamis, grief. Displacement. Something moved and everything around it was relocated … She was familiar with the phenomenon. It was editing. (p. 280)
This passage highlights the intertwining of the universal and the specific throughout The Elusive Language of Ducks. The fable-like qualities of the novel tap into enduring themes of loss and love, and the concentration on Hannah’s thoughts and emotions as she tends to the duck in her house and back yard gives the novel a sequestered, timeless feel. Yet White also insists on the particulars of time and place. The duck travels from a farm near Te Awamutu to Hannah’s Auckland home, a small, green space in the midst of contemporary suburbia. References to the fatal Christchurch earthquake and horrific tsunami in Japan root the novel’s action firmly in 2011, echoing the trauma of Hannah’s loss on a more epic scale and acting as a reminder of the insularity of life and grief, the way in which tragedies not our own are soon ‘relegated to a few lines of shared dismay … amongst people whose lives were unaffected directly by its force’ (p. 291).
While many of the novel’s themes are familiar, White’s depiction of the duck is utterly original and compelling. White draws on her own experience of bringing up a duck and the novel is replete with information on the Muscovy’s eating habits, physical evolution and sexual awakening. Yes, the duck is anthropomorphised, but White constantly reminds the reader that this is a creature of the wild. The oscillation between duck as companion and duck as animal reminded me of the relationship between Pi and Richard Parker the tiger, in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2001).
The duck is many things in the novel. It is a symbol of the baby Hannah has never had, of her mother’s reliance on her when she becomes ill with Parkinson’s disease, of her guilt that she was finally forced to put her mother into the Primrose Hill nursing home, of the inevitable human progression from dependence to independence to renewed dependency, of the mysterious ‘chemistry, supplied by Nature, which made for attachment between one person and another’ (p. 225). As the duck progresses from being a cute, fluffy distraction to the focal point of Hannah’s time and energy, it also comes to embody obsession and addiction, themes mirrored in Toby’s battle against drugs and alcohol. The growing fissures in Hannah’s marriage are likewise exposed by her fixation with the duck, the bird representing Simon and Hannah’s avoidance and silence.
The duck is Hannah’s alter-ego, her conversations with the duck creating a space for her to come to terms with her mother’s death and work through her relationship with Simon. Yet the duck also takes on his own identity. This is not any duck, but a specific duck that Hannah comes to call Ducko: a ‘duck extraordinaire’ (p. 144), with his own thoughts, views, and feelings. On the one hand I remained conscious that all of these anthropomorphic qualities are super-imposed on the duck by Hannah. Yet, such is White’s skill that Ducko lives. He is jealous of Simon. He is capable of communicating his pique at being left alone by turning his back or hiding in the undergrowth. He is a source of wisdom, asking Hannah probing questions about whether she loves Simon, whether she is happy, where her mother has gone, what life really means. Best of all, for me at least, is the duck’s literary humour. This is duck who knows his Shakespeare, wittily deflecting Hannah’s insistent requests to know his name by commenting that ‘By any other name, I’d smell as sweet’ (p. 174). At one point I laughed out loud on encountering ‘Musings by William Drake’ in which the duck, rather than Blake’s tiger, ‘burns bright’ with ‘fearful symmetry’ (p. 145).
Indeed, Ducko is so well evoked that while my head acknowledges the necessary trajectory of the duck symbolism – from comfort and nurture, to problematising Hannah and Simon’s relationship, to relinquishment and healing – my heart remains invested in Ducko. Give up the wise, witty Ducko for the selfish, secretive Simon with his petty cruelties and lack of understanding? Wrong choice, scream my emotions!
For, in the end, it is not the duck whose language is elusive. Ducko communicates in many ways, through his actions (curling up against Hannah’s shoulder, gobbling snails, attacking her shoes in his search of a mate), and through the words that White (and Hannah) gives to him. It is the humans that surround Hannah who baffle and disappoint, hiding behind words rather than using them to connect, or using words as weapons to mock Hannah’s devotion to the duck. When Toby exhorts Hannah ‘to start thinking about life … The precious things you have now, rather than those you’ve lost’ (p. 179), he is asking her to let go of the duck and reconnect with her husband. For the people in Hannah’s life the duck is a nuisance, a joke, a rival, but for the reader the duck is a comfort, advisor and friend, in many ways the ‘precious thing’ she ‘has now’ and that she should hold on to.
Ducks offer comfort, love, and a reminder of the ties that bind. But there is another symbolic feathered presence in White’s novel: the seagull. This soaring sea bird represents independence, liberation, and selfishness without guilt. In this gently wise novel White acknowledges the paradoxical human need for both connection and freedom, nurturing and space, company and solitude, sharing and privacy. We are both duck and seagull, although perhaps we need those who love us to be less seagull and more duck.
KIRSTINE MOFFAT is a senior lecturer in the English programme of the University of Waikato, and the author of Piano Forte – Stories and Soundscapes from Colonial New Zealand, published by Otago University Press in 2012.