Book review: Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 November, 2014, 8:27pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 November, 2014, 8:27pm

Everything I Never Told You
by Celeste Ng

In their list of the 100 best books of the year, announced two weeks ago, Amazon's editors expressed the hope that awarding the top slot to Celeste Ng's debut novel will help it become "the blockbuster it deserves to be" - hints that saleability and marketing may be at least as important as literary quality.

And, at first, such cynicism seems justified. Everything I Never Told You starts, as now seems to be statutory for almost all crime stories on page and screen, with a sudden disappearance: in this case, teenager Lydia Lee, who is soon found dead in a lake, drowned by either suicide or murder.

The repeated word "gone" tolls through the prose like a funeral bell and you begin to congratulate the publisher for its impressive self-control in not simply retitling the book Girl, Gone in order to maximise its appeal. By the third of the 12 chapters, though, it is apparent that there is much here that may impress Pulitzer and Man Booker judges.

The book opens in 1977, with chapters taking place in that year alternating with sections set in the mid-1960s, when a previous crisis - also involving a missing person - struck the Lee family, which comprises James, a Chinese-American history professor at an Ohio college, his wife Marilyn, a Yankee-American medical school dropout, and their three children.

The choice of a '70s setting is an indicator of the damage that modern technology and ideological progress have done to the plotting options of crime writers. Ng's narrative depends on Lydia having left little trace and misleading her parents about key friendships - feats nearly impossible since the advent of mobile phones and Facebook.

The story-driving decisions made by the characters, meanwhile, are almost all driven by overt racism of the sort that mixed-race families would have faced then rather than the covert and coded bigotry that is more common now.

It becomes progressively clear that Everything I Never Told You refers as much to James and Marilyn's relationship as to the information Lydia withheld from them. As the loss of their daughter puts pressure on their marriage, racial and cultural fissures appear.

Ng brilliantly depicts the destruction that parents can inflict on their children and on each other. Marilyn wanted Lydia to become a doctor, while James' fondest hope was for her to become an American. Their dreams effectively kill Lydia.

Everything I Never Told You ranks with acute novels of family psycho-pathology such as Jane Hamilton's A Map of the World and Laura Lippman's What the Dead Know. This offering from Amazon, it turns out, should not be discounted.

Guardian News & Media