One of the questions at the heart of Celeste Ng’s excellent Everything I Never Told You is what might be the difference among secrets, lies and silences, and where responsibility falls for speaking (truth or lies) and for listening.
At first blush the novel is about unravelling mystery and secrets. The opening sentence “Lydia is dead,” invites the immediate line of questioning of who, what, when, where and how. Talk about using conflict to drive plot. In exploring the mystery of her death we learn of Lydia’s family – Marilyn, James, Nath and Hannah – and how they collectively and individually both keep secrets and assign meaning to one another’s behaviours (and silences).
To me the most engrossing parts of the novel are those when characters inaccurately – and frustratingly – ascribe meaning to someone else. Layers of misunderstanding and misinterpretation are confounded by a resolute and seemingly intractable refusal to ask one another about the validity of these (deeply held) (and false) beliefs. Of course the more certain we are of the motivations and beliefs of those we love the less likely we are to realize we might be best off checking whether these are, after all, true. Hardly the case that those we love are lying to us, or keeping secrets, rather the responsibility for the falsehood is ours as we fail to check our assumptions and instead walk around certain of the falsehood we have created.
It’s been well established that I love good character-driven stories, and the characters here are richly drawn. There are moments when their motivations seem a bit rigidly defined by what the character is ‘like,’ but these motivations do evolve as the characters learn about themselves, grow and change.
The first line (and chapters) primed me for a murder mystery, but this is not a who-dunnit novel. The initial frenetic pace of setting the scene for Lydia’s death tempers after the opening chapters and settles into something more of a family and character drama. I say that not as a complaint, but more of a caution that while you may find yourself staying up late to read this one it won’t be because you’re driven to figure out the crime, so much as to figure out when – and if – the family members will recognize their false assumptions, the limits of their beliefs about themselves and those they love, the necessity to openly share.
I’ll be putting this one on my ‘books to buy or borrow’ list (post to come soon…) as you think about possible holiday shopping. I’d say it’s a great book to buy for any reader on your list, and perhaps for yourself. And certainly one to prompt you to ask yourself what do I actually know about my family and myself, what stories do I tell myself, and when is a secret simply the question we never thought or borthered to ask.