A Review of Celeste’s Ng’s Everything I Never Told You – 2014
by Emily Thomson
When I was younger, I kept a terrible secret. No, I didn’t kill anyone, live a double life, or scam a friend into money – I hated milk. Every time I had it, a bellyache would come, and I would rush to the bathroom within minutes. But out of fear of inconveniencing my parents or seeming ungrateful, I never told them. I would just drink the milk set for me, force a smile and thank you, then prepare for the foreboding disaster. It wasn’t until I missed my 5th grade choir show from spending the whole day next to a toilet that I confessed it was their beloved, nightly glass of milk causing me such grief. My secret did more damage to me than it ever would have to my family.
In her debut novel Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng reveals the destructive secrets of the Lee family, a Chinese American family stuck in small-town Ohio during the 1970’s. Equal parts literary mystery thriller and family drama, the novel covers the anguish and heartache surrounding the family after the favorite child, Lydia, goes missing. The uncertainty of her disappearance catalyzes a series of damaging lies, exposed doubts, and hurtful realizations, which Ng uses to explore the loss of innocence for the family. Even the reader succumbs to the cruelty of life as they are plagued with knowing the untold secrets surrounding the Lee family.
Ng immediately shares this with the reader, tormenting the mind. Like a troubled police officer who must tell a soon-to-be-heartbroken family of their discovery, the reader feels guilty, perhaps ashamed, during the first few chapters as the Lee family worries over where Lydia could be. Did she run away? Was she kidnapped? No, and we know all too well that Lydia is at the bottom of a lake. That’s it. So, Ng naturally begs the reader to follow the family’s devastating investigation.
Like an omnipresent detective searching for truth, the reader enters, leaves, questions, renters the Lee home through Ng’s narrative. She effortlessly transforms words printed on a page into the Lee home with her vivid descriptions and lively imagery. On a happier day, before Lydia’s body is discovered, the “morning sun fills the house, creamy as lemon chiffon, lighting the insides of cupboards and empty closets and clean, bare floors” (7). Life seems like a wonderful, euphoric dream. But as soon as Ng starts to dive into the cheery mood, she subtly shifts to the present nightmare, reminding the reader that life is not a happy fairytale, especially when the mystery behind Lydia slowly unveils. Dealing with cruelty of their world, each member tries to find answers, hints, secrets, anything to make sense of Lydia’s death.
Hannah, the younger sister, is crippled by her loneliness, yearning to cling tightly to her family as they pull farther away. As a defensive older brother, Nath projects his fear and anger on the local misfit, Jack, assuming he must have something to do with his unhappiness. James questions his life, his role as a father and husband, resorting to the fears and doubts he had as a child. Marilyn retreats to Lydia’s room, spending her days and nights soaking up any energy and every ounce left of her dead daughter.
For a moment, hope is found while Marilyn scavenges through the remains of Lydia’s bookshelves. She goes to where Lydia’s secrets should be held, kept safe, and tucked away – her diaries. It had been tradition for Marilyn to give Lydia books of all and any sorts, and starting when she was five, Marilyn had given Lydia a diary every year on Christmas. “For writing down your secrets,” Marilyn had said with a smile, and Lydia had smiled back up at her and said, “But Mom, I don’t have any secrets” (74). And Lydia holds true that statement through the years. She has no secrets, or at least any that she is willing to admit.
When Marilyn first cracks the diary open, “the first page she sees, April 10, is blank. She checks May 2, the night Lydia disappeared. Nothing. Nothing for May 1, or anything in April, or anything in March. Every page is blank. She takes down 1976. 1975. 1974. Page after page of visible, obstinate silence. She leafs backward all the way to the very first diary, 1966: not one word. All those years of her daughter’s life unmarked. Nothing to explain anything” (74). Marilyn is left defeated, like a detective with a dead-end lead.
Ng’s words echo in my head as I recoil my own secrets. Things that I never explained to someone. Things I said behind someone’s back. Things I have never shared because I didn’t want to hurt anyone. Perhaps there are things I am not truly aware of yet, because putting those feelings into words would be make the secret real.
Yet, as Everything I Never Told You teaches, even the smallest secret can be damaging. “The things that go unsaid are often the things that eat at you–whether because you didn’t get to have your say, or because the other person never got to hear you and really wanted to” (307). The truth may be painful, hurtful, and ruinous, but it’s better left said, then kept secret.
Ng, Celeste. “Everything I Never Told You”. New York: Penguin Press, 2014. Print