Thursday, 7 February 2019

Book review: Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng (2014)

This ambitious crime thriller wants to stand in as a representative for a lot of narratives that exist in the contemporary public sphere, especially those to do with race, but a lack of credible secondary characters leaves you with an overly-tight calculus at the end of which lies like an accusation the death of the teenage Lydia Lee. Poetry intrudes from time to time but apart from a feeling of claustrophobia the main sensation you get reading this novel is a feeling of annoyance due to the stupidity of one or another of the main characters.

Ng is a competent craftsman and she puts in the work to create a believable superstructure, like a well-made parquet floor, to stage her drama on. The backstories of Marilyn and James Lee, Lydia’s parents, are conscripted into the calculus in a way that is designed to make the errors they commit understandable. Marilyn’s mother had raised her alone and Marilyn had wanted to be a doctor but she had met James Lee, a graduate of Harvard, and had married him and had had his children. James, for his part, is a second-generation American whose Chinese parents had migrated to the west coast before moving to the mid-west to take up jobs in a private secondary school. James had received an education as one of the perks of their jobs and had gone on to become a history professor.

Marilyn’s ambitions for her eldest daughter are strong but James just wants Lydia to be popular. The eldest child, Nath, meanwhile, becomes obsessed with the space program and is given a place at Harvard. Lydia tries to go off the rails and spends more time with Jack Wolff who lives across the road and Nath resents Jack and blames him for Lydia’s death. Nath refuses at first to tell the police his suspicions about Jack but eventually he winds up his courage and phones them.

At the core of the book sits an episode when Nath and Lydia were very small and Marilyn had left home without a word and moved to Toledo with a plan of going back to medical school. Eventually, she returns but Lydia promises herself that she’ll do whatever her mother asks to make sure she doesn’t go away again. It’s the kind of childish wish that has the ring of truth to it but in the end it is fatal. By the time Lydia realises the stupidity of her pledge it is too late.

I had no problem with the types of stories that James and Marilyn use in order to explain themselves to each other and to their children but the rigid arithmetic that drives the narrative demands a single outcome and it tends to dominate every aspect of the work in a faintly tyrannical manner, as though a girl’s death were a kind of benediction that might wash away all of society’s flaws and remedy like a blessing any authorial failings.

As a dramatic device, death, especially suicide, has a certain flavour of the divine about it. It can hardly be reasoned with, and in most cases evades any attempt to waylay it as it progresses like a curse to its final station at the centre of any story it animates. The divine as a plot device is far too old-fashioned nowadays to even feature as a wish in the mind of a contemporary author. In its place we have death in one of its guises, and suicide is the one that chills us the most deeply and that makes us most aware of our own weaknesses. Being pursued by a violent god through a forest was passe even 500 years ago. Nowadays, we have children reminding us of the fragility of life and of the importance of eternal virtues like love.

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