Book Review: ‘Everything I Never Told You’ by Celeste Ng – Nuanced and Compelling Family Drama

When should you read this book? As I did, on a beach. Or it would also make an excellent one-sitting read curled up in a window seat with lots of cushions.

A family in pieces

‘Everything I Never Told You’ is about a girl who goes missing and is found dead in a lake near to her family home.

Except it’s not, really. It’s about her family.

As speculation grows over what happened to Lydia, her family starts to unravel. And as time progresses, it becomes clear that there is much more going on beneath the surface.

How can it be that Lydia spends every evening talking to her friends on the phone, but after she dies it becomes clear that she doesn’t have friends at school? What happened when Lydia’s mother also went missing, but returned, when Lydia was just a child? And what do her brother and little sister know about what has happened to her?

Family portrait

You might expect this type of story to be a thriller, but it isn’t. Rather, it’s a careful and nuanced family portrait.

There is plenty of intrigue as the family try to sort the truth from the lies to find out what happened to Lydia. But the real magic of the book is how Ng explores each family member’s relationship to her, and to each other.

Particularly effective is the description of her parents’ relationship. James, the husband, is a second generation immigrant has a definite chip on his shoulder about being the outsider, and this plays a role in his attraction to Marilyn – an all American sweetheart.

She, likewise, has her own dreams, but her marriage to James rather puts the kibosh on those. (Or does it?)

Photo of a pier over a lake

A subtle writing style

By far and away the best thing about this book is the writing style and the character depiction. They’re totally convincing.

The mark of a really great character (I think) is your ability to understand their perspective, and kind of be on their side even when they do some fairly awful things.

Celeste Ng has a fantastic talent for doing this. I sympathised with every single character – you don’t really end up blaming anybody.

Her style also rejects any proximity to melodrama – which the story could lend itself to – by avoiding overly emotional scenes or hysterical dialogue. It’s a very introspective novel in terms of how the characters are built.

It’s an interesting way of writing. More often these days I read a lot of fiction where you have an external view-point of what the characters are doing and are left to infer what’s going on in their heads.

In this novel, you know exactly how they think and feel, and the heartbreaking thing is watching them say and do things that aren’t really true to that. As people often do.

Overall this book definitely piqued my interest in Celeste Ng’s work – I’ll be looking out for her again.

strong 6_10

Next up –’The Mars Room’ by Rachel Kushner


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