Celeste Ng’s ‘Everything I Never Told You’ is a quiet, gentle novel, which relies more on style than plotting, on gentle nudges rather than fireworks. It’s the kind of novel that first-time writers are told: ‘It won’t get published nowadays.’ But it did. It would probably have had a modest success and sunk with barely a ripple in the great ocean of books published every year in the US alone. But then the Amazon editorial team chose it as their top read of the year – heading a surprising list of lesser-known titles which the cynical amongst you might interpret as an attempt to boost sales for books which have not done so well – or an attempt to prove that they are sensitive souls after all.
To be honest, Amazon lists have little impact on me. If anything, they probably put me off a book rather than endear it to me (because I like to be counter-flow rather than following the herd). However, I had already requested and downloaded this book from Netgalley and it had been sitting for a while on my tablet (which is not a Kindle, incidentally). I have Chinese friends who grew up in the UK and experienced some discrimination in their childhood back in the 1980s, so I wanted to see what it would have been like in small-town America.
As you can imagine, not pretty! For this mixed race Chinese-American family, living in 1970s New York or Boston would have been … not easy, exactly, but acceptable at least. Living in a small college town in Ohio, however, makes life much more difficult and the author describes tribulations both large and small in a factual reporting style which makes it all the more heartbreaking.
Once a woman stopped the two of them in the grocery store and asked, ‘Chinese?’ and when they said yes, not wanting to get into halves and wholes, she’d nodded sagely. ‘I knew it,’ she said. ‘By the eyes.’ She’d tugged the corner of each eye outward with a fingertip.
No amount of teaching about American cowboys (the father’s specialist subject) is going to make them blend in.
The book opens with the chilling sentences: ‘Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.’ And there we are, bang in the middle of something sinister wrapped up in the mundane packaging of daily life.
Lydia is undoubtedly the favourite child of Marilyn and James Lee; their middle daughter, a girl who inherited her mother’s bright blue eyes and her father’s jet-black hair. Her parents are determined that Lydia will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue—in Marilyn’s case that her daughter become a doctor rather than a homemaker, in James’s case that Lydia be popular, well-integrated and accepted by everyone. Lydia tries so hard to live up to their expectations: her fears about failing physics, her disappointment with the science books her mother constantly gives her, her fake telephone conversations are all described with aching precision. Meanwhile, her older brother Nath feels protective towards her, but also stifled in his own ambitions by his parent’s lack of interest in his own future. [That was the one false note, incidentally, in the book: I cannot imagine a Chinese-American family being so disinterested in a son’s career.] Her younger sister Hannah is frequently forgotten by the family – a real after-thought in terms of family planning – and has therefore become more observant than most. She is the one who comes closest to untangling the poisonous web of misunderstandings, lies, wish fulfillment and belated efforts to repair matters.
This is not a mystery or crime story. It is very much a family tragedy, but it never descends into sheer melodrama. The story itself does not feel completely fresh and original, but it’s all in the telling. Beautiful, poignant, lyrically written, building up layer upon layer of insight into each of the characters (and making us feel so much empathy for each one of them), it is a tale to savour and remember.