In space, in that weightless environment, any disruption to an object’s proper orbit can result in catastrophe. Within families, those often insular orbits of individuals, the loss of the center causes a similar spiraling out of control. In Everything I Never Told You by first-time novelist Celeste Ng, the Lee family is unanchored by sudden tragedy and then undone slowly by recriminations and regrets.
Like many parents, Marilyn and James Lee carry past hurts and insecurities with them, shaping their children to embody what remains unfulfilled in them. Their daughter Lydia especially “absorbed her parents’ dreams.” The discovery of her body in a lake in their small Ohio town answers none of the family’s questions as to what happened.
Grief binds Marilyn, James and their two other children, Nath and Hannah, but it also threatens to rend them completely. Ng writes lyrically about the interior lives of each member of the Lee family: the father, a still self-conscious son of Chinese immigrants who is desperate to belong; the beautiful white mother, an escapee from a closeted life prescribed for her by her own mother; and their children, the oldest (Nath) frustrated, the middle (Lydia) suffocated, and the youngest (Hannah) ignored. Lydia remains an enigma for much of the novel as Ng pieces the how and why of her death together through her family’s knowledge (of lack thereof) first, and then Lydia’s own perspective near the end. No pain is glossed over, no unpleasantness swept aside. The fracture that Lydia’s death has created splits open the hairline crack already running through her family. Ng’s deftness with detail draws the reader close into the family’s struggle to understand.
While Ng is an eloquent and thoughtful writer, the many shifts from the past to present (the novel is set in the 1970s) can disrupt the continuity at times. But her pinpoint precision on the feelings and actions after loss make for a very strong and emotional debut that will linger in the mind.