Lydia is dead, and her family doesn’t know about it yet – that’s not a spoiler, that’s just how the book starts. Her body is later found in the local lake and questions like “Why was she there?” or “Did someone lure her there?” arise. One would think then, that Everything I Never Told You, in its 292 pages, investigates all the plausible reasons that could have lead to Lydia’s unexpected death – like most literary thrillers – but that’s far from what the book is about; as a matter of a fact, there is not much (if any) investigation at all.
It’s 1977, in a small, deserted, almost eerie town in Ohio, and the first thing you’d notice would be the Lee Family – half Chinese, half American. They’re misfits and all they ever do is worry about the stares they receive from colleagues, neighbours and strangers. The children are a funny mixture of black hair and blue eyes, something that almost never happened in the time frame the book is set in. And quite naturally, this ostracism causes the family to just balance on a very tightly strung tight rope; every action, every word counts. Lydia’s death topples them all over.
In a haunting page-turner, Celeste Ng explores how deep seated racial prejudices are and how it seeps into familial relationships. The book asks questions and talks about issues in a way that plunges the reader into a feeling of frustration and sadness – so much so that there were moments I didn’t want to finish the book. Each character invokes very strong emotions, ranging from uncontrollable anger to heart-wrenching pity and in spite of fundamental flaws in the Lee’s and everyone associated with them, one cannot choose sides. It’s incredibly painful to read of all the things that go unsaid – you almost feel like a chained spectator, helplessly watching the family fray at its edges and the drama unfold. Through the entirety of the book, there’s a stagnant nagging feeling of grief and misery tugging at your heart – almost like having a lump in your throat but the tears never coming.
Celeste Ng writes like she never took her pen off the paper, so coherent and eloquent is the prose. Although her debut novel, Ng’s control over her writing is extraordinary and her puppetry of her characters is extremely powerful. She very easily plays with her reader’s emotions and demolishes the happy ending with a snap of her finger; such is the art of her writing. Moving back and forth before and after Lydia, she gives an insight into the Lee household – both emotionally and physically – with astonishing clarity. The book ends on a soft note but is left open to interpretation – something that plays a crucial role in the development of the novel.
Everything I Never Told You may not have been the best book I’ve ever read, but it is definitely one of the most important books I’ve read, for reasons I cannot indulge in for now. As much as I urge everyone to pick this book up, I’d advise you to read it only if you are able to deal with heavy, unsettling emotions.
In short, this book takes the reader on a long guilt trip – for all the times they’ve eyed someone for looking different. And we know all of us have.