New York: The Penguin Press, 2014. 304 pages. $26.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)
The opening of Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, is an inversion of the classic “who-dunnit?” From the opening line Ng reveals that Lydia Lee’s death was a suicide, if an unlikely one, which leaves us instead to ask, “why?” This format, executed successfully, has tremendous power, such as Donna Tartt showing us Bunny Corocan’s frozen corpse at the start of The Secret History or Santiago Nasar waking early on the day he will die at the beginning of Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Murder mysteries are about retroactive prevention: if we knew all the pieces and clues earlier, lives would have been saved. For Ng, like Tart and Marquez, inverting the story turns prevention into inevitability. Tartt channels the apocalyptic fate of Greek tragedy in Bunny’s death, and Marquez invokes Christian salvation in Santiago Nasar’s premonitory demise. The characters are predestined for death before the reader even meets them. The same is true in Ng’s novel. She builds a decades-long cultural history of racism and misogyny compounding in Lydia such that her young end is ultimately ordained before she was even born.
After Lydia’s death, Ng starts to fill in the family’s backstory in a carefully patterned weave of past and present. The story brings together James, a son of Chinese immigrants and a future professor of American History, and Marilyn, an aspiring physicist and doctor. Both struggle with personal demons of otherness, isolation, and bigotry. When James takes his son, Nath, to the swimming pool, Ng writes: “An older girl—maybe ten or eleven—shouted, ‘Chink can’t find China!’ and the other children laughed. A rock formed and sank in James’s belly.” The casual racism is persistent and crippling to James, who wants his family to be liked:
Sometimes you almost forgot: you didn’t look like everyone else. In homeroom or at the drugstore or at the supermarket, you listened to the morning announcements or dropped off a roll of film or picked out a carton of eggs and felt like just another someone in the crowd. Sometimes you didn’t think about it at all. And then sometimes you noticed the girl across the aisle watching.
The small town of Millwood, Ohio intensifies these feelings: James and his family are the only people of Chinese ancestry in the town.
Marilyn is also branded with her own form of exclusion. Though her dream is to be a doctor and a scientist, at the Harvard labs the men urinate in her test tubes or assume she is ignorant of basic lab skills. All the while her mother’s ardent domesticity haunts her:
It was the furthest thing she could imagine from her mother’s life, where sewing a neat hem was a laudable accomplishment and removing beet stains from a blouse was a cause for celebration. Instead she would blunt pain and staunch bleeding and set bones. She would save lives. Yet in the end it happened just as her mother predicted: she met a man.
Her unexpected pregnancy forces Marilyn to give up her dream and instead pursue a life painfully similar to her mother’s drab existence centered around her Betty Crocker cookbook. Marilyn and James feel such similar slights from society, but they are only able to communicate them in their love for Lydia.
This is Ng’s greatest misdirection: Lydia’s death is a societal-drama dressed up in the guise of a psychodrama. It is a murder-mystery where the guilty party is all the people who believed that a woman could never be a doctor, that a Chinese boy could never be a real American. Her death is not about the failures of a family, but about the failure of a community filled with minor racism and bigotry. On her last night, Lydia asks herself:
How had this all gone so wrong? Alone, record player humming in the lamplight, she dug back through her memory: . . . Before Jack. Before the failed physics test, before biology, before the ribbons and books and the real stethoscope. Where had things gone askew?
Though Lydia is able to finally ask the right question, she could never know how inescapable the answer truly is.
This unspeakable pall spreads throughout the family, and their failure to communicate is expressed through their gestures and tones. Though sometimes the writing can verge on cliché, such as when bad-boy Jack and Lydia starts hanging out, Jack tells her, “‘Are you sure your brother wants you hanging out with a guy like me?’” To which Lydia responds: “‘He’s not my keeper.’” But the story truly shines in its pathos, when Ng is able to condense a character’s mind into a striking allegory. When Marilyn is going through Lydia’s room after her death, she comes across her book bag and “in her embrace, books and binders shift under the canvas like bones under skin.” Ng taps into the mournful human act of magical thinking, the associative desperation that by hugging her daughter’s ripped and worn book bag she might be embracing some distant fragment of Lydia’s spirit. The murder-mystery in Celeste’s Ng debut novel is a familiar story seen through a new lens, told in impressive details. These moments make the tragedy real.
Ng creates the illusion of a happy and defiantly different family and, using all the art of misdirection, slips in the certain death of a beloved child. If you’re not looking closely you will miss all the sleights of hand that make the best tragedies: all the little clues that pushed Lydia to the literal brink of the lake.