How you feel about New Zealand author Judith White's latest novel The Elusive Language of Ducks (Random House) will depend very much on your feelings toward animals. Anyone who doesn't care much for them is likely to dismiss the story's main character, Hannah, as losing the plot, fairly early in the piece. Those who love them, however, will have more sympathy and tolerance.
Childless Hannah is grieving for her dead mother. She's withdrawn and depressed, so her husband, Simon, brings home an orphaned duckling for her to rear. It's a thoughtful act he will come to regret, for although at first Hannah is reluctant to take on this helpless ball of fluff, it very quickly fills a gap in her life, satisfying a need to nurture. She tends it carefully, hand-feeding it squashed snails and bits of dandelion leaf. She carries it round the house, lets it sleep snuffled in the crook of her arm. Soon the duck and Hannah bond, leaving Simon resentful and displaced.
Increasingly obsessed, Hannah holds long conversations with "Ducko". She worries if she has to leave him alone, talks and dreams about him, observes closely as his yellow fluff turns to down and he grows into an adolescent.
By now the non-lovers of animals will be impatient with Hannah, just as her husband is. But it's easy enough to see why she prefers her feathered friend to most of the humans in her life. Sulky, pedantic husband Simon, selfish sister Maggie and her drug addict husband Toby, Eric the taciturn neighbour; her connection with the duck seems more satisfactory than her relationship with any of them, and certainly less complicated.
The smallness of Hannah's day-to-day life contrasts with the world beyond her front gate. The Christchurch earthquake strikes and aftershocks continue, meanwhile she arms herself with a garden rake because the duck is all grown up and prone to episodes of amorous violence.
Still, The Elusive Language of Ducks is less whimsical than it sounds. It's a novel about human relationships, about the elusive language of people, in fact, more than anything. It's about how easily we misunderstand each other, and how that can disastrously shake up our lives.
Apparently, White was inspired by her own reluctant duck adoption. She kept a journal on its development, which explains the level of detail about the progress from fluff-ball to handsome Muscovy. Her prose is quite the best thing about this book, poetic and reflective, wry and playful at times, compassionate and observant.
White has published sparingly over the course of her career - this is only her second novel, plus there's a volume of short stories. This seems a pity but I suspect her work benefits from this long, slow cooking. Ideas are mulled over and lived through, words polished, characters coaxed into life, flavours gradually deepen. The result is writing to savour - even for those who only like duck served barbecued and wrapped in pancakes.