“Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng – as close to perfect as a novel can get

everything I never told youI’ve never read a novel quite like “Everthing I Never Told You”.  I was completely engrossed in it from the opening  sentence:

“Lydia is dead, but they don’t know this yet.”

I wanted more and more of it, even though it was so unbearably sad that I could not listen to it without finding myself in tears, time and again. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to know what happened next – Lydia is dead. I’ve know that from the first sentence – but I wanted to deepen my understanding of what that death and that life had meant.

There is nothing melodramatic in this novel. This is not a thriller or a crime story. The focus is very narrow. It concerns itself only with Lydia and her family, with their history and their behaviour, with describing the evolution and origins of the unwritten, unacknowledged rules that shape their lives together. Except that the meaning and significance of almost every action, every decision, every failed attempt at communication, every effort at expressing love so deeply felt that it cannot measured in words, happens in the shadow of our knowledge that Lydia is dead.

I’m not going to try and reprise the plot or define the relationships because this is one of those novels where there is no substitute for the text itself.

Instead I’m going to talk about the themes the novel explores and how it made me feel.

This is a novel about loss and grief and guilt, about embarrassment and not fitting  in, and longing for things to be different, but mostly it is a novel about how complex the love that we feel for our family is.

What makes the novel work is that it is honest and kind and deeply empathic with ALL of the characters. It doesn’t judge. It doesn’t play favourites. Yet it doesn’t flinch at mapping out, often with painful clarity, all the ways in which we fail ourselves and each other: the difficulty of saying what we mean and hearing what we’re told; the way in which our internal narrative limits what we are able to see;  the way each family creates its own lexicon, weighting words and gestures with a meaning that is mysterious to outsiders and is often only subliminally understood by the family itself.

As I listened, I thought about my own childhood, of the things we all knew but never spoke of, of the love, deep and real, that came laced with obligation and expectation.  Celeste Ng captures this perfectly.

In Lydia’s family, the price of attention is expectation. Ng has a beautiful and dreadful image of this: Lydia seeing each small snowflake of expectation as easy to say “Yes” to but knowing that she will eventually be buried beneath a snowdrift of expectation so heavy that she cannot breath.

There are some hard themes at the centre of this book that form an undertow of disruption, disappointment and guilt that constantly threatens to submerge the members of the family. The pull of the undertow is mostly experienced as fear: the fear, felt by the only Asian in an all-white college,  of being ostracized for being different; the fear, felt by a young woman with a passion for science, of being trapped in the home-maker life her mother led; the fear, felt by children coping with an unexplained disappearance, of doing something, or failing to do something, that results in them being abandoned; the fear of never escaping from the family to become your real self.

Escaping from this undertow requires honesty, empathy, a willingness to try again and again to understand each other and the courage to grant each other the right to start again.

I’m filled with admiration for how this book is written. I love the beautiful simplicity of the language, that helped me identify with the people and their experiences; the graceful complexity of the non-linear, character-driven structure, that kept refining and redefining my understanding of people and events, not as a puzzle to solve but as an intimacy deepened.  I admired the ability to avoid, and sometimes even invert, clichés while constantly evoking the familiar.

I marveled at the impact of the certainty of Lydia’s death on the way in which I heard her life and saw how much of my daily life depends upon a refusal to acknowledge the certainty of my own death.

I understood that in all relationships there is more than one true answer to any question and the way in which the burden of empathy can create resentment rather than fostering love.

My enjoyment of the book was greatly increased by Cassandra Campbell’s wonderful narration. She got everything right. The book wouldn’t have been the same without her.

If you’d like to hear Celeste Ng talk about her novel, click on the SoundCloud link below

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