The OF Blog: Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You

Monday, July 07, 2014

Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You

Lydia is dead.  But they don't know this yet.  1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact:  Lydia is late for breakfast.  As always, next to her cereal bowl, her mother has placed a sharpened pencil and Lydia's physics homework, six problems flagged with small ticks.  Driving to work, Lydia's father nudges the dial toward WXKP, Northwest Ohio's Best News Source, vexed by the crackles of static.  On the stairs, Lydia's brother yawns, still twined in the tail end of his dream.  And in her chair in the corner of the kitchen, Lydia's sister hunches moon-eyed over her cornflakes, sucking them to pieces one by one, waiting for Lydia to appear.  It's she who says, at last, "Lydia's taking a long time today." (p. 6, iPad iBooks e-edition)
Stories about a character's death rarely ever center around that character.  Sure, the events leading to his/her death might intrigue the reader and draw discussion from other characters, but almost invariably the focus shifts from the character him/herself toward the absence engendered by that character's death and how that affects those who were around that dead character.  The dead are rarely interesting outside of what caused them to be dead; it is the living and their flaws and wounds that attract us, make us want to know the story behind the death.

In her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng does not deviate far from this.  From the very first paragraph, she establishes the primacy of the family and their reactions to Lydia's absence.  Their reactions, with the subtle clues planted therein (the physics homework, marked up; the silence of the younger daughter; the absence of the father), are what make Everything I Never Told You a gripping read, not the details of Lydia's death, although those too are integrated into the larger narrative Ng tells.

The narrative switches back and forth from the surviving family members' pasts to the immediate aftermath of Lydia's death and funeral.  Lydia's parents, James and Marilyn Lee, are seen two decades prior at Harvard, he a graduate student history instructor, she a junior physics major, and how they come to be lovers.  Although this might seem to be straying into clichéd territory, Ng imbues this narrative staple with some interesting elements:  a detailed and explicit rendering of the racism that James (an American-born son of "illegal" Chinese immigrants) experiences, as well as the casual sexism that threatens to overcome Marilyn as she aims to be a doctor when there were virtually no female doctors in the 1950s.  These experiences have etched the two, yet despite their near-instant falling into lust-love, each has internalized some of the prejudice directed toward them that neither one can quite confess to the other those things that actually bother them.  This mutual deception later manifests in the ways each parent treats their children.

Lydia's siblings, Nath and Hannah, have their own burdens to bear.  Nath is too much like his father for his liking, and he tries to toughen him, to get him to be different than the social outcast he was as the only non-white to attend a Midwestern boarding school.  Hannah, even though she is a child, has learned through her parents' mutual ignoring of her to pay extra close attention to everything that transpires around her, and she is the first to grasp not just what has really happened to Lydia, but also how the rest of the family is suffering as well.  In the flashback scenes, we see Lydia's own burdens, not those of being ignored or viewed with disappointment by her parents.  In a sense, she represents in proxy her parents' frustrated hopes:  James wants her to be the popular kid that he never was, Marilyn sees her as being the physicist/doctor that she had to abandon when she became pregnant and married James.

Ng moves back and forth between important events in the family's life, showing that their insecurities and pent-up anger had been built up long before Lydia's death and that due to the unwillingness of any family member to give voice to their fears and doubts, petty divisions have arisen.  Ng does an excellent job in not just establishing character motive, but in developing her characters.  The combination of racism and sexism that vexed their parents' dreams in the 1950s appears in an even darker, more insidious form for the biracial children of Marilyn and James' union.  Ng carefully layers these prejudices within possibly-innocuous actions by those around the children, but this subtle approach does not lessen the impact of these casual prejudices, but instead accentuates them, because in every finger-pushed up-turning of the eyes or lack of conversation with schoolmates, there can be seen yet another division being created solely because one looked slightly different from others around.

The weakest part of Everything I Never Told You ends up being the police procedural scenes, as the mystery of how Lydia has died pales in comparison to the probable reason why she has died.  Through allusions to parental pressure to be this and that when she just cannot match their expectations, it quickly becomes obvious what led to Lydia's death.  However, Ng's meticulous narration of her family's past makes these antecedents engrossing scenes.  By novel's end, each family member's travails have served not just to create a crucial moment of catharsis for them, but also for the reader.  Through the course of Everything I Never Told You, the reader is put through an emotional wringer.  Thankfully, the concluding scenes reward the reader for persevering.  Everything I Never Told You may not be the easiest of narratives, but its penetrating look into the family dynamics of a 1970s biracial family makes for an absorbing read.

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