Ducking for cover, Christine Johnston

The Elusive Language of Ducks
Judith White
Random House, $38.00,
ISBN 9781775532798

Judith White’s themes are the big ones – old-age, decline and death; sex, love and the betrayal of love. Her characters have an inner life but they also struggle with making a living and doing domestic chores. Sometimes they experience great joy but, more often, there is grief, loss and depression. In this novel White adds a measure of perversity and mischief, and throws in a duck for humour and absurdity.

Author of one previous novel (Across the Dreaming Night, 2000) and a collection of short stories (Visiting Ghosts, 1991), White has, nevertheless, been producing fiction since the 1980s, and it shows. She writes with a deceptive ease and clarity about topics that are often too close for comfort. Hannah’s mother’s ashes, for example, are loaded with significance, but where to put them? White tackles her subject matter with an acerbic wit and an absence of sentimentality.

After her mother dies, Hannah is presented with a Muscovy duckling. Her husband brings it home from his aunt’s and uncle’s farm. She doesn’t want it but, reluctant to let it die of hunger or neglect, she adopts it, and it becomes the centre of her life, to the detriment of her human contacts, including the relationship with her husband, Simon.

Hannah sees the duck as an affliction, like her mother’s Parkinson’s disease:

She was the host to the duck, that was for sure. She’d been afflicted by a duck. It was an ailment that wasn’t in her medical books, and she was uncertain as to what stage she was at with it now, or whether it was terminal. And the side-effects were unknown.


Hannah is grieving, processing a lifetime of ambivalent feelings for her mother, and we are not inclined to judge her too harshly, at least this reviewer wasn’t. She was the daughter responsible for bringing her mother from her beloved Hawke’s Bay to Auckland, looking after her until it became clear she needed rest-home care. Hannah’s faithful attention wasn’t always gratefully acknowledged. Every step of the way brought anguish and guilt. But the world (Simon included) is pretty hard on Hannah. No wonder she turns more and more to Ducko, who seems to offer unconditional love, taking pleasure in her presence as much as in the food she provides.

Mark Twain said: “The more I know about people, the better I like my dog.” The more time Hannah spends with her dependant and adoring Muscovy baby, the less inclined she is to connect with the human race. In the meantime, the story of Hannah’s life unfolds, revealing her childhood and the relationships with her feisty, unpredictable mother, her unsympathetic younger sister and, most importantly, the story of Hannah and Simon, the love and attraction that is sliding into middle-aged apathy, even antipathy.

The duck was a stroke of genius – without it the story would have been too grim. It is a narrative device, but also very much a duck, fixated, self-centred and demanding. While I didn’t quite fall in love with Ducko, I enjoyed the zoological details and the anthropomorphising. White conveys the beauty and mystery of birds, and demonstrates how caring for a young creature can open a door to a new appreciation of the natural world.

Hannah talks to her duck and by p23 he is talking back. When he questions her about her feelings for Simon, she replies that “of course” she loves him. We are all – reader, duck, even Hannah herself – beginning to doubt it. The duck brings out the worst in Simon. It becomes man versus duck and duck versus man. Simon doesn’t seem to be on Hannah’s side. He is crossing over to Maggie, Hannah’s unlikeable sister. (I, for one, wasn’t sure why he would.) Maggie’s husband, Toby, has issues of his own but is, interestingly, the one person prepared to reach out to Hannah and share her anguish. He says: “We all have our obsessions and addictions. Things that aren’t good for us.”

Ducko soon ceases to be a loveable baby creature, morphing into a tyrant. That he remains credible is a triumph for White’s understated and persuasive writing style. Hannah imagines how the duck sees the world. In one delightful passage she envisages “the overnight educator” whose visitations inform the duck that he is not human but destined to take to the sky, and to that end should practise flapping his undeveloped wings.

So many novels feature unsympathetic protagonists, with the result that the reader struggles to care enough to take an interest in the story. While Hannah is working through her grief and guilt, I stayed with her in spite of some pretty crazy developments. I was on her team as she lost her bearings, lost her husband, lost the plot.

We are programmed to enjoy the story of young love – boy meets girl etc, but we rarely encounter an examination of love in an older couple. White shows the first phase of love, a mainstay of literature, to be the easy bit. There are a few hiccups, of course, but love generally triumphs, as it did with Hannah and Simon. It’s the “happy ever after” that is less straightforward. Later life gets messy – the infidelities and the secrets we never got around to sharing lie in wait for our frail boats like a hidden reef. Hannah may anguish but White doesn’t over-analyse, and the plot advances with its own momentum.

It was interesting to encounter the Christchurch earthquakes as elements of the plot. Though Hannah is in Auckland, Simon, Maggie and Toby are in Christchurch. Their efforts to cope with the situation are absorbing all their energies, and this further isolates Hannah. No one, it seems, cares for her like Ducko. Of course it is her preoccupation with the muscovy that makes the others pull away. Is it madness, or Hannah’s response to her childless state? Is it a way to recover from a complicated grief and a previous secret loss?

The Elusive Language of Ducks has an unusual structure – 31 chapters, each divided into sections of varying length (from one paragraph to dozens of pages) with quirky, often ironic titles – “Talking about Love” (Hannah and Ducko having a conversation), “Down Time” (eiderdown, that is), “The Woman Gets Analytical”, and “Reasons (Excuses) for Infidelity”. These titles effectively distance the reader from the claustrophobic world of Hannah’s unhappiness and the mesh of her relationships, and provide a witty comment – the only type of authorial incursion in the novel.

I noted the generous use of white space in the design of this book. It allowed breathing space, as the narrative ranged from Hannah’s present to her past.

I was initially confused to note that in some, more poetic, sections Hannah is referred to only as “the woman”. Is White writing here from the point of view of the duck? Or is this a measure to further distance the reader? There are subtle shifts in meaning and symbolism; the duck is not only a rival to Simon, but is becoming allied with Hannah’s mother, who loved sea gulls and often painted them in flight.

White is tapping into a universal fantasy. Perhaps we all yearn to become birds as we dream of the liberation of flying. How often in the parlance of our secular times are the spirits of loved ones urged to “fly free”? It’s easier said than done.


Christine Johnston is a Dunedin writer.


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