Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

I’ve had this on my shelves for a while, yet I only just got around to picking up. Like Arcadia, I’m not entirely sure why it took so long. There was so much hype about Celeste Ng’s debut, and with her second novel Little Fires Everywhere coming out soon I was excited to catch up.

This novel has perhaps one of the most memorable opening lines I’ve ever read:

Lydia is dead, but they do not know this yet.

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From here, the story unravels in two directions. We travel backwards, to understand how the Lee family came to this moment in their relationships and shared history, and forwards, where we see the effects of these past events on their reactions to the death of the middle child, in suspicious circumstances.

I love fiction which investigates family dynamics, but I’m also wary of them. The tone of these stories has to be pitched just right to avoid being infuriating. The tension often comes out of what is not communicated – from the things people won’t talk about – and it takes a lot of skill to handle this without the tension slackening. Rebecca Wait’s The View on the Way Down is a thoughtful exploration of depression and its ripple effect, but while reading I was distracted by how simple a conversation would solve everything. I struggled to sympathise with the reasons things weren’t done. Everything I Never Told You deftly avoids this pitfall. The things-not-said theme is contained to dramatically charged moments, nuanced with emotion which is sympathetic from all sides.

There are many perspectives given here which allow for those overlapping sympathies: even where characters were in the wrong, I felt for them because Ng so thoroughly inhabited the emotional impulses which took them there. I’d be completely unsurprised to meet any of the characters in this novel walking down the road, they feel so complete and honest. The intimacy the reader is afforded to their thoughts and emotions is familial in itself; by the end of the book, I had a clearer understanding of each member of the family than they have of each other. But this is the engine which makes the book cohere so clearly.

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Lydia herself is also an impressive presence, given the declaration of the first line. Her impact on the narrative is necessarily large, as it is her departure from life that precipitates events.

This was an incredibly emotional read which deftly handles huge themes on a close scale: theme of identity and race, the question of choice, of empowerment and parental ambition. The slight variations in how each character perceives things create a beautiful picture of how the world works differently depending on your position in it; how what is advantageous to one person is a burden to another. Each relationship is so carefully drawn as to speak to these concepts, without ever losing the immediacy and honesty of the moment itself.

Few books I’ve read in the past few years have made my cry, but this was one of them – and so while I absolutely recommend it, it’s with that warning. I’m glad I took my time to get to it, and I’m really excited to read Ng’s next book.

Book Only

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