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  • Ninay Desai

Everything I never told you by Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng’s much-feted debut novel, Everything I never told you was published in 2014. As is apparent from the title, the novel is about secrets. The kind of stuff we keep to ourselves, hoping to hold on to the people we love and the price we end up paying for our silence. But that’s not all it’s about. I’ll tell you the rest later. For now, let’s start at the beginning.

A copy of Everything I never told you by Celeste Ng lying on a wooden table and bar stools adjacent to a glass window. Photo by Ninay Desai.

The plot of the novel revolves around the lives of a mixed-race family of five, the Lees. They live in Middlewood, a small All-American college town. The book opens on the day of their older daughter, Lydia’s disappearance and death. Using an omniscient third person narrator, Ng unfurls the story from the alternating perspectives of all five family members allowing us to witness poignant moments in their lives, present and past, and making us privy to their emotions, secrets and motivations. The narration is also peppered with several political and socio-cultural references such as the ‘the summer of the Son of Sam’, Elvis’ death and launch of NASA’s Gemini 9 grounding the story in a real-world timeline.

Everything I never told you is not a whodunnit where the police or a detective solves the case. It’s a mystery that delves not so much into Lydia’s disappearance and death but the layers of her life. And this is not easy given the double life Lydia leads. This is a character who had maintained an annual diary for 12 years and never wrote a single word in them. Not one word. The reader is led by the narrator into an almost languid study of events from the parents’ childhood and youth to the children’s early years that made Lydia, the person she was and her life, what it was. There’s no rushing about but the pace of the story doesn’t slacken.

Academic excellence as a path to acceptance, racism, alienation, sexism and secrets are some of the themes in Everything I never told you. One of the ideas explored is how a parent’s dreams for their child can rob the child of the opportunity of finding their own way and end up stunting their growth. And that’s not to say that the parent’s choices for their child, per se, are necessarily wrong but just that being pushed, no matter how subtly, is what makes them problematic. This novel reminded me of a quote by the Swiss psychotherapist Carl Jung:

“The greatest tragedy of the family is the unlived lives of the parents.”

Ng paints a moving portrait of the inherently human longing to be seen for who one is and the how precariously the pile, of small sacrifices we make in service of those we love, teeters as the years go by. By the end of Everything I never told you, one is left with a pit in one’s stomach wishing it had turned out differently and goes down the rabbit holes of thinking how a few small changes or a honest chat or two could’ve made all the difference. To me, that is the power of this book - that you're left with a tinge of regret and sadness at the waste of it all. Alas, what is done, is done and nothing alters the cold fact that Lydia is no more.

Speaking of Lydia brings me back to the opening lines of the novel,

“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”

This opening is so good that the publishers couldn’t resist putting it in the blurb at the back of the book. One can’t fault that decision because it gives the story impetus from the word go. However, what makes the introductory sentences truly brilliant is that they imbue a mundane family breakfast, which is the opening scene of Everything I never told you, with a gravitas that it wouldn’t have had if we didn’t know what the family doesn’t. For a first-time novelist, Ng is masterful with this bit of dramatic irony for without these lines, the reader would probably have skimmed over the details or worse, shut the book and picked up another. Instead, it turns us, the readers, into keen-eyed sleuths on the lookout for clues amidst soggy cornflakes and physics problems.

Celeste Ng’s characterization is another positive in Everything I never told you. The characters are relatable. Their hopes, complexes, motivations and coping mechanisms feel real whether it is Lydia’s father, James’ cloying desire for his children Nathan and Lydia to be popular, Marilyn’s ‘tiger mom’ tactics to make up for the missed chances in her own life or Nathan’s tangled ties of loyalty and resentment to his sister, Lydia. And then there is Hannah, the baby of the family, stuck, literally and metaphorically, in the attic. She who misses nothing from her hiding places and craves the sunshine of affection from her family.

There is also a passing reference to William Faulkner’s classic The Sound and the Fury, a novel about the breakdown of a Southern, formerly aristocratic family. I saw certain parallels between the characters in Faulkner’s book and Ng’s novel. Perhaps, I’m wrong. Read Everything I never told you and let me know what you think.

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2 kommenttia

03. syysk. 2023

What an interesting review, Ninay! It sounds like a must-read.

Ninay Desai
Ninay Desai
05. syysk. 2023

Thanks. It's a good book. :-)

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