Set in small town Ohio in 1977, ‘Everything I Never Told You’ by Celeste Ng tells the story of sixteen year old Lydia Lee who is found dead at the bottom of a nearby lake in a suspected suicide. Her Chinese-American father James and her Caucasian mother Marilyn are completely distraught as are her older brother Nathan and her younger sister Hannah. However, one of them may know more than they are letting on about what really happened to Lydia before she died.
‘Everything I Never Told You’ recently topped Amazon’s Books of the Year list beating the latest novels by Stephen King, Sarah Waters and David Mitchell amongst others. It has been described by Sara Nelson, Amazon’s Editorial Director of Books, as a “sleeper” but is sure to garner more recognition in the coming months and deservedly so. The concept and themes behind the story are fairly simple and straightforward ones: missing teenage girl, small-town America, first and second generation immigrant experience. Yet even though the ideas behind the novel are not particularly new, it is written extremely effectively with a powerfully quiet and melancholy tone throughout.
The story flits between the years before Lydia’s death and what happens in the immediate aftermath before we finally learn how she came to drown in the lake. Even though ‘Everything I Never Told You’ isn’t particularly long at just under 300 pages, Ng presents a detailed and complex family portrait focusing on the different expectations the members of the Lee family have for themselves and for each other with James wanting Lydia to “fit in” with the other girls at school while Marilyn hopes her daughter will become a doctor. The novel is the atmospheric type of literary mystery set in 1970s small town America that Joël Dicker was probably aiming to achieve with ‘The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair‘. However, where Ng succeeds – and Dicker didn’t, in my opinion – is in her perceptive observations and her ability to show rather than tell the reader what is happening to the characters.
‘Everything I Never Told You’ is a highly accomplished debut novel and I look forward to reading more of Ng’s work in the future. Many thanks to Little, Brown Book Group UK for sending me an advance review copy via NetGalley.