Author: Celeste Ng
Reviewed by: Su Min
“At least I don’t let other people tell me what I want. At least I know who I am. What I want. What about you, Miss Lee? What do you want?” ~ Jack Wolff
While searching online for book recommendations, I chanced upon Celeste Ng’s “Everything I never told” and decided to borrow it from the library. The book revolves around the past and present lives of a mixed-race Chinese-American family and their struggles, as they deal with the death of Lydia, their middle child.
This novel is one which I had enjoyed thoroughly. It explores social issues such as racism and sexism (and homosexuality, although it does not play as big a part as the other issues) as some of the issues plaguing the various characters’ sense of identity. At the heart of the novel, Ng discusses the issue of identity. The importance of knowing who you are, what you are, and what you want. All the characters in the novel share this common struggle, as they attempt to find themselves and be someone they can truly love. James, a Chinese man, longed to fit in in the sea of Americans since he was six, while Marilyn, an American woman, longed to be the one to stand out in a male-dominated society. Through their marital relationship, Ng also discusses the struggles faced by mixed-race couples and the clash in differences in their beliefs, as they try to comprehend but unintentionally hurt each other. She helps us understand this by writing different chapters in the different characters’ points of view, toggling between their past experiences and their present lives. I didn’t find this constant switch irritating (like some books I have read before), but it allowed me to empathise more strongly with the characters’ struggles, hopes and dreams, which touched and moved me.
One of the striking things about this novel for me, is how it had hit home with me. In the novel, James and Marilyn have three children: Nath (the eldest), Lydia (the middle child) and Hannah (the youngest). Both Nath and Lydia are, to James and Marilyn, their second chance in life. Everything they dreamed and aspired towards in their youth but failed to achieve, had been translated into expectations and hopes pinned onto Nath and Lydia, with Hannah mostly being forgotten about. I felt this resonated strongly with me, the way my own parents’ expectations of me had always hovered above my head, the way I tried to meet them, the way I often couldn’t. I think that Ng had described this relationship beautifully and sincerely, in a way that she articulates not just the struggles of Nath and Lydia, but also the unspoken dreams of James and Marilyn. While the novel doesn’t have a completely ‘happy’ ending, it hints at the idea of hope for the future and redemption for the disarrayed family, with young Hannah being James and Marilyn’s second chance at being parents.
“Everything I never told you” has been a journey of enlightenment, not just for the characters, but for me as well. It continues to provoke and disturb me, and even after finishing the book, I still go back to it and wonder “What if… had happened?”