Man or Mango? by Lucy Ellmann

Booker Prize-shortlisted Ducks, Newburyport was one of the best books I read in 2020 and possibly ever: ambitious and challenging. So Biblioasis’ North American re-issue of one of Lucy Ellmann’s earlier novels, Man or Mango?, was an instant add to my TBR pile. I had to read it. Originally published in 1998, Man or Mango? does feel a bit charmingly dated, in the way contemporary fiction feel in the decades immediately following its publication. Noticeably not of the present, but not yet removed enough to feel like a different setting.

“I was never quite sure where we were going throughout this novel, and I’m not entirely sure where we ended up, but it was a joyful ride anyway.”

The novel follows two curmudgeons: Eloïse and George. Eloïse is a middle-aged woman, who took an inheritance from her late parents and absconded to a cottage in the middle of nowhere with her cats. She wants nothing more than to avoid other people, and be left to her own devices, such as drawing up lists and writing letters to those she feels are doing wrong and need to be corrected, like various retailers and the Queen. As her days unfold, it is revealed she once had a relationship with George, which ended badly and was a small part of her withdrawal from the world.

George, on the other hand, is a recently divorced American poet who’s come to England to work on his epic hockey poem (a side note: Ellmann/George refer to it repeatedly as “ice hockey,” which to non-Canadians is normal and to Canadians is odd), but he hates everything about the country. He’s got a residency in which he has to teach, while he continues to make little progress on his poem. As he spends time in England mostly playing pinball, his thoughts drift to Eloïse, the woman he’s still in love with, but is unsure if she would take him back.

Both George and Eloïse are grouchy, unlikeable characters, wrapped up in their own miserable little worlds. And despite their equal distaste for the rest of the world, through a series of strange and amusing events, they join a larger group of strange and prickly characters at a hotel in Ireland, leading to a series of fateful interactions.

Man or Mango? is an odd little novel, driven by studies of Eloïse and George as middle-aged single people, their failures, and their stubborn idiosyncrasies. For those who enjoy a plot-driven novel, this is not for you. It’s quite sharp and absurd, with not much happening other than the mundanity of English life, Ellmann is an American-born author living in the UK, and George’s complaints, while exaggerated, do smack of lived experience with the cultural differences. I was never quite sure where we were going throughout this novel, and I’m not entirely sure where we ended up, but it was a joyful ride anyway.

While it’s not as well formed and unique as Ducks, Newburyport, Ellmann’s playful sense of humour and language still shine in this novel, and you see the direct line from the chaos of Man or Mango? to her later work. Prickly, strange and wholly ridiculous, the characters of Man or Mango? are delightful and so are their strange, overlapping journeys. People who enjoy mysterious, character-driven, plotless fiction will be at home in this novel, a lovely taste of what Ellmann can do.

Lucy Ellmann was born in Illinois and now lives in Scotland. Her first novel, Sweet Desserts, won the Guardian Fiction Prize. Her latest, Ducks, Newburyport (Biblioasis, 2019), won the Goldsmith Prize and the James Tait Black Prize for Fiction. Man or Mango?, first published in 1998 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), was longlisted for the UK’s Orange Prize. She likes dogs and swimming, but she does not have a dog, nor does she swim. 

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Biblioasis (Nov. 8 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 224 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1771964952
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1771964951

Alison Manley has ricocheted between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia for most of her life. Now in Halifax, Nova Scotia, she is the Cataloguing and Metadata Librarian at Saint Mary's University. Her past life includes a long stint as a hospital librarian on the banks of the mighty Miramichi River. She has an honours BA in political science and English from St. Francis Xavier University, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. While she's adamant that her love of reading has nothing to do with her work, her ability to consume large amounts of information very quickly sure is helpful. She is often identified by her very red lipstick, and lives with her partner Brett and cat, Toasted Marshmallow.

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