11 Nov 2017

Everything I Never Told You

Long has it been since I've eased as seamlessly into a book as I did this one. Celeste Ng's first novel, Everything I Never Told You, recounts the story of the Lee family, starting in 1977. After being reported as missing, the favourite daughter, Lydia, is found at the bottom of a nearby lake by the police. The Lees are a Chinese-American family; Marilyn and James Lee are parents to Lydia, Nath and Hannah. The family descend into emotional turmoil when Lydia is found dead, resurrecting the past and so it starts to unravel that the cracks were beginning to show long before. 

I liked how the book distracted me completely from what I expected it to be. I started reading this thinking it was going to be from the who-dun-it crime or thriller-type, but it was far from it. Yes, you naturally want to know what happened to Lydia, but there's so much more that captures your attention that you start to forget (pretty quickly) that you still don't know the story behind what happened to her, even right towards the end. It doesn't unravel the same way that a crime novel would; you don't find yourself getting closer to the truth, but navigating your way around the family instead. Each family member has their own (rather bleak) story to tell, which is in turn sculpted by how they have been raised, and by who; it's an interesting depiction of how much our character is informed by our parents, and the trials and tribulations in their lives.

Lydia is an essentially an embodiment of James and Marilyn's projected dreams, ambitions and lost futures; they channel into her what they lacked from their own lives, for Marilyn it is the opportunity to become a doctor (when female doctors were few and far between), and for James it is his desire to feel as though he belonged. This article by The Guardian raises an interesting point; the 70's setting allows for a disappearance that's relatively untraceable. Does that even exist nowadays? With social media, GPS and god knows what else that we're blissfully unaware is tracking our every move, it would be near on impossible to disappear in the same sense. She's able to disguise her lacking popularity from her father, essentially because he can't check her follower count, comments or Facebook friends because they simply don't exist yet. I'm not sure if this is a good or bad comment on today's society vs. back then, but it sure would have been easier to see the signs of an unhappy child.

The novel switches from past to present erratically, and it's only really from the characters that you can ground yourself in the time (from back in my linguistics seminars at uni, this is called finding the 'deictic centre', letting it point you to the time or place with the words they use...geek). The novel is a struggle, a depiction of the simultaneous power and destructive nature that silence has. I found the last pages so evocative, and emotionally charged with sadness and desperation for Lydia. Compressed by the wants, desires and lost lives of her parents, in desperation to be everything they wanted she lost herself. The sadness starts in James' story, his isolation in coming to America. I found Hannah's story the most difficult to read. Ironically, she's the child that's been holding the family together before she was even born (given Marilyn only returned from her estrangement when she found out she was pregnant with her), yet she has a ghost-like presence in the household. She spends most of her time curled under a table, listening to her family argue; her words are sparing and her desire for love and attention from her family is tangiable. 

Beautifully written and the most fluid prose that lures you into the story from the offset, but really quite desperately sad, it delves into important and poignant things that aren't spoken about enough. Ng's second novel is out in hardback now, Little Fires Everywhere, and it's already on my list. 

You can buy Everything I Never Told You here.

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