A family drama, a whodunit, and an examination of racial politics in the 1970s, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng is many things, and successfully so.
Lydia is the favourite middle child of Marilyn and James Lee. Clever, a hard worker, she looks set to fulfil her mother’s dream of becoming a doctor. Then, one day, Lydia goes missing. And soon, she is found dead in a nearby lake. Each member of her family deals with Lydia’s death in different ways – Marilyn is determined to prove Lydia was a happy teenager who did not harm herself, James puts himself on a path that could destroy his marriage, Lydia’s brother Nathan is convinced Jack, who is sort of the boy next door, is responsible for what happened to Lydia. But it’s Hannah, Lydia’s younger sister, who is the most observant and knowledgeable of all.
At the centre of the novel is Lydia, who dies right at the beginning, but whose presence haunts us as much as it does her family throughout the book. You can draw comparisons between Everything I Never Told You and The Lovely Bones, but unlike that novel, Lydia has no voice of her own (and what happened to her is a lot less clear). Instead, we get to know Lydia through her family’s memories of her, and some flashbacks, but none in the first person. That Ng has managed to create such a strong sense of character for a character we never meet in the present is stunning.
Then there is Lydia’s family, who we get to know in the past and present. The most fascinating characters are Marilyn and James, whose past not only impacts them, but also their entire family. James, who grew up as one of the only Chinese people in his small town in America, is determined his family be uber-American, to fit in with everyone else. And Marilyn, having given up her dreams of becoming a doctor, is determined to make sure Lydia fulfils her potential. Both parents are so focused on their own desires, and so convinced that they are looking out for the best interests of their children, that they don’t realise the harm they’re doing to Lydia, Nathan and Hannah.
In addition to characterisation and the family drama, I loved Ng’s exploration of racial politics in 1970s small town America. While the Lee family is not often subjected to out and out racism (although there are some incidents), they are very much treated as other. Ng presents a family no different from many others, but one which is set apart purely because of their looks, which then bleeds into other aspects of their life and interaction with people.
Although there is one thing that gets tied up entirely too neatly at the of this novel for my tastes, ultimately Everything I Never Told You is a beautiful and moving novel about family and love, and how loss affects and changes people.
How I got this book: From the publisher, Blackfriars. This did not affect my review.