Everything I Never Told You
Treated like a stranger
by Keith Taylor
From the July, 2014 issue
At one point in Celeste Ng's new debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, a Chinese American father imagines saying to his white wife, "You've never been in a room where no one else looked like you. You've never had people mock you to your face. You've never been treated like a stranger." The time is the mid-Seventies and the place is a semirural college town somewhere in northern Ohio. None of the townspeople even attempts to disguise prejudice or simple ethnic ignorance. Much of the intellectual weight of this deeply moving novel comes from Ng's clear-eyed exploration of the shaping force of her characters' ethnicity, but it's also an unforgiving revelation of the prejudice that surrounds them.
Yet it would be a disservice to this multi-layered novel to understand it only in terms of identity, as important and essential as this theme is for contemporary American writing. Ng opens the novel with two little sentences that bravely and immediately reveal the central moment of the novel: "Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet." That sounds a bit like the hook that often opens a murder mystery, and, indeed, Everything I Never Told You can be understood as a kind of murder mystery, although the effort here is not to discover who but why.
Ng's chapters move back and forth between the moment of the story and the background of the couple's life--how they came to this place, and how they learned to live with the expectations and prejudices that shaped them. James, the father of three children (including Lydia, the dead girl), is a professor of American history. His academic specialty is the cowboy; the ironies of a second generation Chinese American scholar studying the cowboy in 1970s Ohio are not lost on him. Marilyn, the mother, is from the South, and has defied all of her own mother's expectations by studying medicine and then marrying an Asian man (Ng, true to the time of
her novel, uses the discredited marker "Oriental."). She has sacrificed her own ambitions for her family, only to project them onto her older daughter.
Ng's masterful point-of-view allows her to move through the minds of the children, not only survivors Nathan and Hannah, but also Lydia herself. The author doesn't give her characters any easy futures or her readers any false hope. This is a sad, even a tragic novel. Characters the author makes us care about are changed and limited by family and national histories. When the father, near the end of the book, after all that has become clear to him about his family, thinks "there is so much more to do, so much yet to be mended," it sounds delusional, but Celeste Ng has made us care enough that we too hope for the possibility of healing.
[Originally published in July, 2014.]