Celeste Ng?s 2014 debut novel is one of my favorites in recent years. Here?s why.
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Everything I Never Told You tells of a Chinese family in the mid-1970s who deals with the loss of a daughter and sister, Lydia, who is found drowned to death in a lake. The novel is told in third person omniscient, present tense, and past tense in flashback, from the perspectives of the mother, Marilyn; the father, James; the son, Nath; the daughter, Hannah; and the deceased daughter, Lydia, in flashback.
At the beginning of the novel, the middle child of the family, Lydia, does not return home when she?s supposed to, and a few days later, her body is discovered floating in a lake. Lydia?s mother Marilyn and father James are besides themselves with this news and try to overcome their grief through various means, including James having an affair with one of his graduate students. Their kids Nath and Hannah are also struggling too, and Nath blames the next-door-neighbor Jack for Lydia?s death, since Jack had been spending so much time with her.
The novel is split into twelve chapters, six of these chapters dealing with the present and the aftermath of Lydia?s death, and the other six chapters deal with flashbacks detailing the events leading up to the death. One story the novel goes into is Marilyn?s many years of being a home-maker with her three kids, before she takes off one day to continue her academic studies in a different city, not even leaving a note.
The kids soon learn that her mother has often been unhappy as their mother, and this knowledge especially weighs on Lydia. She wants to do right with her mother and have her be proud of her daughter, and so one night she goes to a nearby lake to prove she can jump into the middle of the water and swim back to shore, like she was never able to do growing up.
In the present, Marilyn accuses her husband of cheating and eventually the two reconcile, while Nath stops blaming Jack and finds a place in his heart to be at peace with what?s happened with his sister.
There are three major themes in Ng?s literary novel. The first is Secrets. It?s right there in the title; so often in the book characters keep things from others, sometimes on purpose, sometimes accidentally, and this is one of those narratives that show how secrets can slowly destroy a family. Ng uses the omniscient narrator voice to tell us about these secrets, like in this example:
Lydia has never really had friends, but their parents have never known.
The POV works as dramatic irony at times, the parents thinking one thing about who their daughter is and their daughter really being someone else entirely. Marilyn especially thinks Lydia is popular at her high school and perfectly happy, when she is anything but.
Another big secret is James?s affair with one of his graduate students. Ng writes,
Everything about [Louisa] is different: the flex of her limbs, the texture of her skin. Even her taste is different, slightly tangy, like citrus.
Even though he eventually reconciles with Marilyn at the end of the novel, for a big chunk of the story he has completely disconnected from her and tried to find solace in the arms of another woman, particularly since he?s dealing with the grief of his daughter?s death. Ng puts it well when at one point she writes,
Lydia and Nath both knew [James] was lying, and they understood that this was how things would be for a long time.
The sadness of this line is that there seems to be no end to these secrets, that they will continue far longer than they should, and it?s not until the end that various truths finally surface to the familial unit.
The second major theme is Family Problems. The most compelling aspect to the novel is following the tense family dynamics, both before and after Lydia?s death, and so many problems plague the family members from beginning to end. These problems eventually lead Lydia to her death, because she is so frustrated with everyone, particularly her mother. Ng writes,
By Christmas morning, Lydia was furious at them all, and even the discovery that Marilyn had at last unpinned the test from the wall failed to cheer her up.
If these people could just talk to each other and stop keeping secrets, it seems obvious that there wouldn?t be so many problems.
Another major problem stems from the family?s Chinese ethnic background, with Lydia struggling with her identity at school, and Marilyn also worried that her appearance led to her death:
Now, when Marilyn says this ? if she were a white girl ? it proves what James has feared all along. That inside, all along, she?d labeled everything. White and not white.
James has never wanted the way they look to be an issue in their lives, but Marilyn says something that strokes a fear he?s often had deep down about potential problems their appearances could lead to, particularly in a mostly white neighborhood. The family problems extend outside if their own family too, as Marilyn has a major conflict with her mother:
When Nath had been born, then Lydia, Marilyn had not informed her mother, had not even sent a photograph. What was there to say?
The non-relationship she?s had with her mother leads her into depression when she realizes she could have had such a better relationship with her daughter Lydia before it was too late.
The third major theme of the novel, of course, is Grief. Ng knows that she?s going to have to explore this theme and how it relates to all the characters given that the novel opens with Lydia?s disappearance and then later discovery of her dead body, and Ng doesn?t hold back in showing what this unexpected death means to the characters. One of the most memorable scenes concerning James going through Lydia?s autopsy report:
He learns the color and size of each of her organs, the weight of her brain. That a white foam had bubbled up through her trachea and covered her nostrils and mouth like a lace handkerchief.
This scene is heartbreaking because not only does it reveal specific details about Lydia?s dead body but it also reveals to James for the first time that, indeed, Lydia is gone. Another element that plays into the family?s grief is that there?s news of Lydia everywhere, even weeks following her death:
Police Still Searching for Clues in Girl?s Death. Suicide Likely Possibility, Investigators Say. Each time he sees one, he folds the newsprint over itself, as if wrapping up something rotten, before Marilyn or the children spot it.
The death of one?s son or daughter would be heartbreaking and horrific, but to have to read it about it all the time in the newspaper would be the experience of grieving even worse, because you would keep getting reminded about the death and the circumstances surrounding it. Grief affects Lydia?s siblings too, especially Nath, who really takes it hard when she dies because the two weren?t on the best of terms. Ng writes,
The air inside the car grows thick, filling his lungs like cotton. Nath cranks the window down. Then ? as the cool breeze rushes in ? he pitches over the side and vomits both bottles of whiskey onto the curb.
Nath often can?t handle the way he treated Lydia before her death and so he blames others, takes to drinking, does the kinds of things most teenagers would do in this situation. And lastly, grief plays a major role even when the characters are feeling better at the end of the novel, feeling a bit more closure. Ng writes,
Still, part of [Marilyn] longs to go back for one instant ? not to change anything, not even to speak to Lydia, not to tell her anything at all. Just to open the door and see her daughter there, asleep, one more time, and know all is well.
This is one of the truest and most memorable lines in the book because any parent would relate to it, that desire to open the bedroom door and see his or her child alive, happy, everything all right in the world.
Why I Love This Novel
I liked a lot about Everything I Never Told You, and I want to start by discussing the tremendous literary qualities of this book. First, I have to look at the splendid, specific prose that flow throughout this terrific novel. A few elements separate this novel from a typical supermarket-selling adult murder mystery, and the stylish prose is certainly one of them. Ng writes,
Afterward, the wedding reduced to a slideshow in Marilyn?s memory: the thin white line, like a hair, in the justice?s bifocals; the knots of baby?s breath in her bouquet; the fog of moisture on the wineglass.
In one line, Ng offers so many specifics, so many great images, so many memories in one fleeting moment. Later, she writes,
A drop of water trickled out of Nath?s hair, like a shy little mouse, and ran down the nape of his neck. It made its slow way between his shoulder blades, and where his back curved, it dropped straight down, as if it had jumped off a cliff, and splashed onto the back of Jack?s hand.
Most writers would write, ?A drop of water splashed onto Jack?s hand? or something, but often Ng takes the time to really describe for the reader a moment specific to a character that means something more than what we may think. She?s a tremendous writer and brings such love and care to her prose in this novel.
The second literary quality is the choice of omniscient point-of-view, which allows for these stylish prose as well as the ability to go into any character?s head whenever she wants. She?s able to create a whole world with this point-of-view choice, giving us so much when something like first-person from one character never could have done the job. Look at the first line:
Lydia is dead. But they don?t know this yet.
Not only does that offer a great deal of tension, but it also shows us that someone outside the characters is in control of this story, that someone else knows more than what these characters do. Sometimes Ng will switch heads in the exact same sentence, like in this example:
And while James clicks on his headlights and eases the car into motion, stunned at how much has happened in one day, his son peers through his bedroom window in the growing dimness, staring out at Jack?s house.
The point-of-view choice allows Ng to go wherever she wants whenever she wants, but there?s always a deliberate decision made as to how she bounces around the different heads; it always feels impeccably designed from the get-go.
Another literary quality is the emphasis on backstory. Again, many authors would have been perfectly willing to have this entire narrative play out in the present, showing how this family reacts to Lydia?s death, and that would have made a strong novel to be sure. But about half of this book takes place in flashback, building up the backstory of all the characters, and this strategy not only adds terrific tension to the current events but also allows for worthwhile character development. She?s adept at delivering unique character details, like in this example:
Once, a receptionist at the provost?s office thought [James] was a visiting diplomat from Japan and asked him about his flight from Tokyo. He enjoys the surprise on people?s faces when he tells them he?s a professor of American history.
But she?s also smart in going a step further by taking the time to develop these characters in that aforementioned backstory:
It was September 1957, her junior year, at the back of a crowded lecture hall.
This line, for example, begins a long twenty-plus-page chapter concerning Marilyn?s young life, showing how she met James and how she came to have children. It gives us a sense of Marilyn that no quick flashback in the current narrative could have allowed, and so by the end of the novel, the reader has a strong sense of who these people are.
I also enjoyed the tension in this novel a lot. This is a murder mystery, after all, with secrets and twists galore throughout its pages, and Ng understands that even in a literary work she does need to keep the reader flipping through those pages. She ends a chapter on these two lines:
It?s not until he says these words into the telephone that he understands why the police are asking. As he speaks, the entire family catches a chill, as if they know exactly what the police will find.
What better way to keep the reader going on than something like that? It adds a sense of mystery that we can?t wait to read more about. There?s also a great deal of tension in the second half of the novel in which Marilyn starts to figure out that her husband is cheating. Ng writes,
She lets her eyes drift past Louisa, to the tiny sliver of living room she can see through the doorway, and Louisa glances back over her shoulder nervously.
When Marilyn makes the realization of who Louisa is, the tension ramps up considerably.
Brian Rowe is an author, teacher, book devotee, and film fanatic. He received his MFA in Creative Writing and MA in English from the University of Nevada, Reno, and his BA in Film Production from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He writes young adult and middle grade suspense novels, and is represented by Kortney Price of the Corvisiero Agency. You can read more of his work at his website, brianrowebooks.com.