I’ve been putting off writing this review for weeks, but this book is special and you should seriously think about reading it. Celeste Ng’s debut book, Everything I Never Told You is a stirring novel about a family unraveling.
Ng begins her novel in the present day with a family on the brink of finding out that their teenage daughter, Lydia, is dead. The Lee Family: Lydia, her mother, father, and two siblings. Their lives circled around Lydia, their unconscious center of gravity.
The story of this interracial family plays with chronology, ricocheting between moments in each parent’s childhood, Lydia and her sibling’s childhood, the parents’ relationship, the near present, and the realities of life after they all learned that Lydia had drowned.
How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and fathers. Because of Lydia’s mother and father, because of her mother’s and father’s mothers and fathers…Because more than anything her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in. Because those things had been impossible.
Ng’s narrative voice is straightforward and honest. There is very little verbal fluff. Complexity is instead added through unpacking the layers of each characters, the unsaid things that frame how each family member thinks of themselves, and in turn, those around them. From the obvious big decisions to the subtle and subconscious, Ng focuses on how each of these people has, in a way, been built from their lives. Tying together a past that heavily influences the present and the entire trajectory of their lives.
There are moments where these kinds of heavily intertwined plot lines that flow across time feel contrived and the characters fitting into a common mold, but in the main, Ng’s presentation of family relations, of generational gaps, parental pressures, and sibling dynamics rings resonant. I certainly don’t believe that this is a book for Asian Americans in a limiting sense, but I know that as an Asian American, certain pieces of this story felt particularly true and not often found in novels. A subtle integration of iconic stories — in this brief sentence, about the paper son system that Chinese immigrants used after being first excluded in 1882 — woven into broader questions about belonging.
He had never felt he belonged here, even though he’d been born on American soil, even though he had never set foot anywhere else. His father had come to California under a false name…
To her sentences capturing the insipidness of treatment of otherness and reactions to how society reacts to you that are not exclusive to any one individual’s or group’s experience:
“What’s wrong with your eyes?” It wasn’t until he heard the horror in the teacher’s voice–“Shirley Byron!”–that he realized he was supposed to be embarrassed; the next time it happened, he had learned his lesson and turned red right away.
In an interview, Ng notes that her own suburban childhood influenced the story line but that it is certainly not autobiographic. She used the feeling of “negotiating between two cultures” into her characters’ actions. These are forces that clearly shape the family’s emotions and decisions, drawing readers in as they grapple with Lydia’s death and what led up to it, each pursuing their own theories and in turn revealing themselves to be complicated, problematic, and also sympathetic.
Check out more from 8Books–8Asians’ almost book club.