Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng is both unbelievably good and almost unbearably sad. In looking at the lives of one mixed race family in Ohio in the 1970s, Ng cracks open many of the complexities that still haunt America today, whilst also writing one of the great “family” novels of our era.
From the first sentence of the novel, before we even know who she is, we know that Lydia is dead. As it turns out Lydia is the fifteen year old daughter of James and Marilyn Lee, a university professor and housewife. She is also the sister of Nath, who is about to leave the family home to become an undergrad at Harvard and Hannah, the largely ignored and unseen third child.
As one could perhaps guess from the title, the novel centres on all the things that the family never voices or expresses to each other that rise to the surface after Lydia’s death. In fact, this element of the story becomes far more important in the context of Ng’s storytelling than the actual reason for Lydia’s death. Certainly as a reader you start out wondering who did it and why, but Ng drags you into each of the characters lives so deeply, that Lydia almost becomes secondary until the end of the book, when Ng reveals what occurred.
This is a book that focuses on the loneliness you can feel even when surrounded by the love of your family. How misunderstandings can turn into a lifelong way of being, forming the very crux of any given relationship. Even amongst the people we know best, it can be a challenge to really understand how they feel and what they think. With our children how much do we focus on what we want or expect them to be, rather than allowing them to grow and develop of their own accord? What did we ourselves give up on to achieve what we have today? Certainly these are not new topics in fiction, but there is a depth of feeling to Ng’s prose that pulls us in and allows us to forgive the unforgivable as each character’s story grows. Ng’s writing is both minimalist and beautiful, a style that only enhances the loneliness of a family already isolated by virtue of being mixed race.
This is Ng’s debut novel. How can it be a debut and be so beautiful? There are so many great debut novels out there right now, but there is something about this one, about the structure, the style, the characterisation, that just makes it stand apart. There is only one thing that would hold me back from buying another of her books in the future that is the sadness, the piece of me that empathizes so strongly with the Lee family that I can almost taste their loss, but surely that is what great writing is about?