Everything I Never Told You (Black Friars 2014) was Celeste Ng’s debut, years before her popular novels Little Fires Everywhere and Our Missing Hearts. Even this first book demonstrates her extraordinary talent for capturing characters and weaving an intricate plot of complexity that resolves into an unexpected yet entirely inevitable climax. She is a master of language and her novels to date have all explored in some way the Chinese-American experience.
The opening lines: ‘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’, set the tone for a story that has been compared to The Lovely Bones. Adolescent Lydia and her siblings Hannah and Nath are part of a Chinese-American family living in small town Ohio in the 1970’s. The backstory of their parents, Marilyn and James Lee, is the structure upon which the story sits; they are determined that their children, particularly Lydia, will ‘fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue’. The story is told from the perspective of each of the siblings and their parents, which contributes to the active moving parts of the puzzle that their life has become, especially after Lydia’s body is found in the local lake. As her parents become increasingly withdrawn or angry or protective, and her brother and sister deal with grief in their own strange ways, Lydia’s family – now broken – begins to shatter even further under the weight of loss.
While you could say this is a crime novel, it is primarily a story of family, of secrets and lies, of hidden desires and longing, of ambition and jealousy, of racial disharmony and prejudice. It depicts the often strained relationship between parents and their children, and the stresses of loyalties strained and love divided. It is a snapshot of what life was like for mixed race families 50 years ago, and the challenges they faced. And it is an eternal and timeless story of a family and a community fractured by grief, and how people respond in very different ways.
Beautifully written in clear, concise and lyrical language, with authentic dialogue, a finely-tuned sense of time and place, and a page-turning plot, this is a book that will provoke discussion and offer an insight into both racial and family tensions.