“Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng, 297pgs, Penguin Press, 2014 [click here]
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Some books are so carefully, lovingly crafted, some stories so startlingly, truthfully told, some authors so prescient and insightful, so gifted at recreating the journeys of real people’s lives with words, rhythm, and a near-supernatural ability to know what to include and what to omit, that turning to the last page, one resists reading the final phrase. Some books, once they come to an end, leave you with both a fullness for having experienced the emotional arcs of the characters, and, too, an equal ache of emptiness, because they are finished now. There is not another chapter.
Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, is just such a book.
From its opening sentences:
Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.
— the reader is riveted by the heartbreaks, the hopes, the secrets, the sorrows, the misunderstandings, the mistakes, those things misspoken, unspoken, and regretfully spoken by Lydia, her mother and father, Marilyn and James, her sister and brother, Hannah and Nath, and her neighbor, Jack. We come to know Lydia — and the others — through the thoughts and observances of each, the ways in which they see and miss one another.
This is a story about expectations and the cost of dreams. This is a story about discrimination both subtle and overt. This is a story about fear, especially the fear of saying and being out loud who one is and wants to be. This is a story about loving someone who doesn’t exist, of loving someone in secret, of loving someone less for who they are than from a longing to be seen and loved one’s self, and the tragedy of that love not being returned in that way.
The book begins with Lydia’s death and then goes back in time, jumps here and there and back again until arriving at that night when it happened. Along the way the characters’ weaknesses and strengths, wisdoms and ignorances are artfully limned, and though the end is inevitable given the opening sentence, the reader begins — as in real life having lost someone — to employ magical thinking in the hope Lydia’s death will be averted.
Ng’s prose is sculptural, her imagery often breathtaking. Listen to this memory of the early courtship of Lydia’s parents, James and Marilyn, having just painted his apartment and made love on the bed, pushed to the center of the room:
Later that afternoon, waking in the fading light, he noticed a tiny yellow blotch on the tip of Marilyn’s toe. After a moment of searching, he found a smudge on the wall near the end of the bed, where her foot had touched it as they made love: a dime-sized spot where the paint was blotted away. He said nothing to Marilyn, and when they pushed the furniture back into place that evening, the dresser concealed the smudge. Every time he looked at that dresser he was pleased, as if he could see through the pine drawers and his folded clothing straight to it, that mark her body had left in his space.
And this, much later when youngest child, Hannah, whose powers of observation border on preternatural — as are Ng’s — has realized at a family dinner that something horrible, world-altering is coming:
Hiding under the smooth white [icing], Hannah thought, was the pretend driver’s license, the Congratulations and the blue L-Y-D. Thought you couldn’t see it, it was there just underneath, covered up but smudged and unreadable and horrible. And you’d be able to taste it, too. Their father snapped picture after picture, but Hannah didn’t smile. Unlike Lydia, she had not yet learned to pretend. Instead she half shut her eyes, like she did during the scary parts of TV shows, so that she could only half see what came next.
That is a fantastic piece of writing. Almost as fantastic as another of Hannah’s precognitive perceptions, this one involving a drop of water trickling from Nathan’s hair described from page 210 to 212 that struck this reader with such force, I had to search Celeste Ng out on Twitter (I do not know her, she does not follow me, I am simply an appreciative — incredibly appreciative — reader) late last night to tell her it had left me breathless and weeping.
This is a stunning novel. And, as I said at the start, it left me both full from the glories of its prose and emotions, and empty, once finished, missing it. Fitting, that, as the life and death of Lydia does the same for all the other characters in the novel.
Read it. Really. Just read it.
I bought Celeste Ng’s “Everything I Never Told You” at my local independent bookstore, The Curious Iguana [CLICK HERE].