Celeste Ng once again has taken me on a bumpy ride of secrets and fears that will leave me absolutely breathless with Everything I Never Told You. Ng is the kind of writer who has keen eyes for one’s deepest and darkest desires, and you can feel every character’s flesh and blood as if you’re living their life as them. She chooses the tell the narrative through a third-person omniscient point of view, and although she often skips around from character to character, the story still flows and never feels out of place at any point. One may frame the story as the identity crisis of an Asian-American, but I think it’s more of a vessel Ng utilises for us to see a bigger picture.
The story began with the sudden disappearance of Lydia Lee, the beloved daughter of James and Marilyn Lee. James came from a family of Chinese immigrants, and despite being born and raised in the States, struggled to fit into American society. Marilyn was an aspiring doctor who had wanted anything but her mother’s vision of her being the perfect housewife. Upon their first encounter, they saw in each other their innermost desire, one desperate to blend in whereas the other eager to stand out. Thus begins the story of the two and their three children.
We see through the eyes of each sibling as well as how Lydia’s death affects each family member. We see James seeking comfort by having an affair; we see Marilyn trapped in immense guilt. We see how Nath recalls the other side of Lydia, the one who craves just a little bit of love and comfort; we see Hannah sees past Lydia’s smile that doesn’t reach the eyes.
Piece by piece, it eventually became clear that Lydia had drowned in the lake, and the plot unraveled slowly as we learned how one expectation after another piled up on Lydia, with James projecting his social insecurities onto her and Marilyn forcing her onto the path of science. There’s very little left she looked forward to, and in her quest for an answer, she returned to what she deemed the beginning of her unhappy childhood and found her ending there in the lake.
I could not pinpoint why exactly I resonated with the story, just like I could not pinpoint what exactly the story is about. It’s a subtle, quiet family drama where each character came alive with Ng’s writing. The motivations and feelings were crafted with such intricate details, and I was beyond awe with how the characters are deftly interwoven together. It moved from the search for a simple question to an unsettling journey that forces me to redefine family and sacrifice and empathy. Yet it covered so much more beyond the issues of family, race acceptance and gender equality - it’s the loneliness of being an anomaly; it’s the courage to fight against fears and expectations; it’s about the search for identity; it’s something universally relatable. And that’s my favourite kind of genre - the seemingly depressing with a glimmer of hope.