Book Review: The Elusive Language of Ducks

By Stephanie Johnson

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'The Elusive Language of Ducks' by Judith White. Photo / Thinkstock
'The Elusive Language of Ducks' by Judith White. Photo / Thinkstock

The Elusive Language of Ducks by Judith White
(Vintage $37.99)

The Elusive Language of Ducks brings to mind some of Paulo Coelho's novels, or of Muriel Barbery's enormously popular The Elegance Of The Hedgehog. Readers could regard it in the same way, as a fable that conceals truths and lessons in how to live. It's poetic, gentle and wise.

Near the beginning, Hannah's in-laws give her an orphaned Muscovy duckling, in the hope it will help assuage her grief for her elderly mother, recently deceased in the Primrose Hill Retirement Home. The novel spans the time it takes for the duckling to reach maturity, and a little more. He develops some unappealing habits, but never loses Hannah's heart. He becomes her focus, her obsession - and in the process almost destroys her already shaky marriage.

The question Judith White seems to be asking throughout the novel is, at what point does obsession tip into madness, especially when that obsession is born of grief?

The care and love Hannah had previously devoted to her mother for a long period before and after her incarceration in Primrose Hill is transferred to the duckling, with a zealot's attention to his health and wellbeing.

The bird metaphor is strong throughout, and occasionally a little strained, as if the novel would like to take flight into another genre, a novel-in-verse, like those of Anne Kennedy and Dorothy Porter. The elderly Primrose residents call like mallards across the pond, the deadlines imposed on Hannah as a freelance editor symbolise crows that flap through her isolation. Events are related closely to the duck's behaviour and development.

Lonely and sad, longing for someone to love, Hannah works through her grief, stumbling and occasionally falling, but eventually pulling the pieces of her life together. There are beautifully subtle, multilayered explorations of family relationships, the nature of memory - especially the memory of falling in love - and how long marriages may survive.

White encapsulates the contemporary phenomenon in modern relationships of man and wife plugged into their websites of choice. The novel feels very current, with husband Simon going away to work in earthquake-ravaged Christchurch, just as the unnamed Auckland suburb fills up with apartment buildings and townhouse developments, and its depiction of the almost-retired still caring for ailing parents.

A reader could think that perhaps, occasionally, too many details are given of the duckling's appearance and his "splats", his food and his baths, until the realisation dawns that the book may be read not only as a novel, but also for its wealth of detail about how to successfully raise a baby mallard.

White's second novel (after Across the Dreaming Night) is a how-to manual - how to love, how to grieve, how to pick up your life after death and go on. Wry and clever, The Elusive Language of Ducks transcends its bleak theme to leave us as thoughtful and questioning as its gentle protagonist.

- NZ Herald

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