Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, via Penguin Random House, out now.
[I received this book from Penguin Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review; this did not affect my opinion of the book whatsoever.]
Think of all the news stories you ingest about missing people or brutal murders. Do you ever think about what the families of the victims must be going through, besides the inevitable tearful ‘please respect our privacy’ quotes and shocked questions nobody can answer? About the forever-lasting trauma they will now have to live with? About what the family was like in private before this terrible thing happened? About what was going on for the victim at the time? Everything I Never Told You blends these questions into a story about an Asian-American family in the 1970s coping with the mysterious loss of the eldest daughter, Lydia, in a time period when they were quite misunderstood by others and themselves.
Everything I Never Told You is more dark and depressing than mysterious – if you’re looking for a new Gone Girl, this isn’t it. When I first started reading it, I thought it was going to be more of a mystery novel, but I quickly realized it was more about unlocking sadness. You’re taken through each family member’s story between times of then and times of now and wonder if they’ll ever be able to piece things back together or admit to one another what’s gone wrong.
The book begins with “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”
It’s a typical weekday morning. The mother (Marilyn) is finishing up making breakfast, the father (James) is driving to work at the university, the brother (Nath) is coming down for breakfast and the younger sister (Hannah) is staring at her cornflakes. But when Lydia doesn’t come downstairs, and Marilyn goes up and sees her daughter’s bed wasn’t slept in, everyone’s lives begin to spiral.
Marilyn and James’ already strained marriage is tested with the absence of their favourite daughter. Both parents tried too hard to make Lydia into something they couldn’t be — Marilyn’s dreams of being a doctor were dashed when she got pregnant, so she forces science and math courses on Lydia, and James is always feeling weighed down from a childhood of being on the receiving end of racism, so he wants Lydia to blend in and do what’s popular. Nath and Hannah both know Lydia was the favourite, even though their parents never had to say it out loud. They don’t know how to act with each other after Lydia’s disappearance, let alone anyone else. They’re used to being in Lydia’s shadow, but now they’re just in darkness. But nobody knows how Lydia would end up dead. Nobody expected that.
It certainly is a compelling story of firm realities; that sometimes one person can hold many people together, that parents subconsciously push their wishes onto their children, that intense grief can wreck someone, let alone a whole family, what kinds of impact racism has, etc. But really what I liked best about this novel was Ng’s writing style. It has strength in its simplicity of stating facts and explaining mindsets. It’s calm and non-judgemental. It makes everything clear for you. It washes over you like warm water.
Here are some examples:
The police tell them lots of teenagers leave home with no warning. Lots of times, they say, the girls are mad at their parents and the parents don’t even know. Nath watches them circulate in his sister’s room. He expects talcum powder and feather dusters, sniffing dogs, magnifying glasses. Instead the policemen just look: at the posters thumbtacked above her desk, the shoes on the floor, the half-opened book-bag. Then the younger one places his palm on the rounded pink lid of Lydia’s perfume bottle, as if cupping a child’s head in his hand.
How good the rain would feel, like crying all over her body.
I can’t quote much more without giving things away sadly, so I’ll leave it at that!
By the time I finished Everything I Never Told You, I was exhausted. Feeling the burden of five people for even just a week does a number on you. But it felt like watching a beautiful movie or short television series. I recommend it, but I also recommend you read it while feeling like you’re in a safe place, as it could be triggering or just a heavy read.