Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng: A Chinese-American Literature Story about the Profound Consequences of Abandonment, Abuse, and Adultery – Book Review

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng is a Chinese-American fiction literature novel about a family—two parents, a brother, and a sister—who try to piece together the shattered remnants of their lives after their daughter and sister, Lydia, is found dead. While the police try to decipher the cause and events that led to Lydia’s passing, her family is left pondering their final moments shared with the young lady and a mass of What Ifs that they’ll never be able to truly answer.

I had avoided this novel for the longest time due to all of the incredible hype surrounding it. I didn’t want any of that excitement to impact my opinions of the story, so I waited and waited until that hype dissipated before picking it up. Now that I have read Everything I Never Told You cover-to-cover, I finally understand why it swept the literary world with so much awe and respect.

The novel is a remarkable work of fiction that sophisticatedly examines the dimensionalities of grief, abandonment, dysfunction, and the inability to convey emotions and insecurities honestly and securely. Add in some smaller layers of institutionalised racism within oneself specifically and the terrible power of misperception, then we have one of the most evocatively contemplative mysteries and family portraits that I have read in years.

An examination of desire and acceptance is told via a multi-generational, non-linear formula, that transports the reader through time and various memories to bear witness the most intimate and concrete thoughts of each individual in this family that depicts the domino effects of loss and neglect. The series of mysteries and surprises that follow suite help us to slowly understand precisely what happened to Lydia and how tragically plausible it can be for anyone else out in the world with similar circumstances.

The aspect that truly caught me off-guard with Everything I Never Told You, though, aside from what I’ve already mentioned, is the masterful craftsmanship of the family drama that unfolds. It never felt melodramatic or overtly depicted. It was painful and heart-wrenching to see the potentiality of this family’s joy being washed away by a flourish of fears born out of presumptuous concerns, and what makes it so painful is how devastatingly sincere it is, particularly where rejection and promises made out of desperate acts to protect are concerned.

The other element that makes the narrative so damn powerful is the look at how people can perceive themselves as outsiders or how internalised racism is bred from the institutionalised prejudices that we don’t truly realise exist until we’re old enough to understand the truth behind being different. No matter how much success we garner for ourselves—professionally, financially, personally—there’s always a small buzzing sound in our ears and minds that make us feel like we’ll never live up to the stakes that lead towards acceptance. The tiny micro-fissures of self-doubt then lead to generational trauma of prejudice-dressed identity crises. While emotionally quite substantial, Ng delivers these components with brilliant precision, brutal honesty, and beautifully breath-taking suspense.

Everything I Never Told You is an extraordinary work of literary prowess and I’m so happy that I finally allowed myself to read it. To call it an experience feels like quite the understatement, but that is exactly what this book was for me. An outstandingly, unexpected, heart-breaking yet fabulously invaluable experience. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND this to readers of multi-generational family portraits, folx that like Asian-American literary fiction, and friends that just want a title with damn good writing.

Publication Date: May 2015
Publisher: Penguin Books (978-0143127550)
Genre: Chinese-American Literature
Page Count: 297
Content Warnings: Sexual content. Infidelity. Child abandonment and neglect. Some mild language. Racism. Underage smoking. Consumption of alcohol. Preparation and consumption of food. Discussions of suicide. Death of loved ones. Drowning. Bullying.
Availability: In-print; Hardback, paperback, eBook, and audiobook formats available.

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