Monday, 3 October 2016

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Part of why I got around to reading this book was part of a happy experiment to rejig how I read recent books. I have been falling deeper down the science fiction/fantasy rabbit hole of late (it is my favourite genre), but I try to leaven that with some classics I haven't read, and some recent books that may be good, just to keep my tastes broad. But I became very unhappy with how I was picking recent books.

For about four years, I was compiling a list of books on the Globe & Mail bestseller lists, and those that stayed on the longest, I would read. I was not having fun. Rare indeed was the book that came from that that I absolutely delighted in, and more often, I was just frustrated with how bland these books were.

So two years ago, I started a different way of finding new books. There's a British blogger who, starting in about November, creates a long page of links to people's top 10, favourite 10, etc., lists that tend to come out around the end of the year. (I make one myself, although it rarely if ever has books on it from the preceding year.) I started compiling those lists into one spreadsheet. I have not yet looked at all the best of lists...it takes a long time, and usually around April or May I get frustrated and decide that I've done enough to come up with the end product - a top 100 list.

I've been reading through these lists, but very slowly, as they get mixed in amongst my other lists. To my delight, the quality has shot way, way up. Then, a month ago, I was thinking about what I read on my lunch breaks at work, and realized that the campus library would likely have many of the books on these lists - the more literary ones, anyway. As a result, I've suddenly plowed through three or four in as many weeks, and they've been great - Life After Life was a book I was dying to get back to every day.

And then there was Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You. I devoured this in only a couple of lunch hours, and after I'd finished it, I felt like I walked around for the rest of the day in the kind of daze that only deeply affecting works of art can provoke. Everything in the world was just a little askew, and I had a hard time coming out of my head, and the book, to interact with things that were perfectly normal. The last time I remember having a reaction quite that strong was to Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men movie.

Look, I'm about to start my Dust Cover Dust-Up in about a month, but this is a late contender for getting close to the top honours. At least. I just...I don't even know how to wrap my head around what Ng has accomplished here. It's truly transcendent and heartbreaking.

It's set in the late 1970s, around the time I was born. A family in smallish-town America loses their eldest daughter when she is drowned on the lake in the middle of the night. The rest of the book is voyages forward and backward through the past of this family and their nightmarish present, as they try to piece together why she was out there, and what they didn't know about her.

It becomes apparent that it was not only Lydia, the eldest daughter, who was not telling things to the others, and this is making it sound like a thriller when it's really the farthest thing from that I can imagine. It's a quiet, elegiac novel, about the parts of ourselves we don't share, even with our families, and how our assumptions about what other people are and what they want can cause distance instead of intimacy.

It's impossible to leave race out of the discussion - the father, James, is the son of Chinese-born immigrants, and although he's a university professor, he still struggles with the reality that he doesn't quite fit in. Even though he studies cowboys, even though he married a white woman, and wants to believe his children are fitting in better in school than he ever did, he feels apart. His wife, Marilyn, on the other hand, has an opposite push away from normal, wanting to be different. She had wanted to be a doctor, before she accidentally became pregnant with their first child, and we see how that has eaten away at her since.

I don't want to give away the movements of the story through time and through events that are shown to be vastly different in the interpretations of each person who experienced them. But I do want to focus for a moment on the way Ng uses materiality to ground memories. So much of what is not said, and the corollary of what is assumed is that, in the absence of the ability or inclination to ask, the members of the Lee family go to material objects and try to decipher what they mean. Lydia has left no diaries, but she left a shelf full of empty ones her mother had given her. Marilyn has to interpret this. Over and over, people find objects and ascribe meaning to them, sometimes correctly, but more often performing a personal archaeological analysis that ends up in the wrong area altogether.

It is this grounding in objects that I think part gives this book its power - it is startlingly easy to put yourself in the shoes of the characters and imagine trying to figure out what has been going on in a family where avoiding difficult topics is the norm. Then, when Ng finally reveals the truth behind them, it is like a bolt of lightning, where both the interpretation and the reality are understandable, and often, heartbreaking.

This is, without a doubt, one of the most emotional and skillful and devastating books I've read in a long time. I highly, highly recommend it.

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