Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng – Part of a Book Chat

Everything I Never Told You

This is part of my conversation with by dear friend, Di Leedham, who recommended this book to me some time ago, one of the books that I must read this summer. I started reading Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You during this half term.

Serendipitously, it was only yesterday that I was alerted to series of tweets surrounding a “joke”: “And then turns out you’re Wong.”

I have responded to that particular tweet to point out that it is not funny at all if you, like me, have endured years of mock Chinese “ching, chong, chang” uttered as children walk past you, sniggering. 

But, relevant it may be in terms of racial stereotyping, this blog is not about my grievance. It’s about the delight of reading Ng’s debut novel. 

So far, after reading the first four chapters, the depiction of James’s identity erasure of his racial and cultural heritage, and his unstoppable desire to reinvent himself as an embodiment of a racial and cultural desert island is very close, too close, to my own experience. I applaud her keen observation there. 

The shifting perspectives of the relationship between James and Marilyn give the reader a clear glimpse into the emotional corners that they keep well hidden from each other. However, their relationship does strike me as being somewhat unconvincing in the sense that it develops too fast – that kiss, though explained away as part of Marilyn’s impulsive behaviour, happens too quickly. On the other hand, James’s Ready acceptance of his “luck” underpins the desperation of his quest to be just like them. Perhaps, the desire to be different and the desire to be the same explains the shaky ground on which their union is built.

The taunting episode at the swimming pool completely exposes the inadequacy of James as a father to protect his son from ridicule. It stems from his own warped sense of self, I think. After the swimming pool incident. Marilyn queries about Nath’s being “sullen and silent” at the breakfast table. James replies, “Some kids teased him at the pool yesterday. He needs to learn to take a joke.” There. Betrayed by his own father.

I want to know Hannah better. So far, she’s the “obedient” one. I want her to grow into a convincing character with substance. Nath is beginning to show more of his emotions and that’s important to hold the family together where Lydia has left vacuum.

I am also impressed by her character study. I appreciate that the plot doesn’t really lend itself to lengthy tête-à-tête between James and Marilyn, and the narrator describes what’s going on or amiss between them, nevertheless, it’d be interesting to see and hear some more interactions. It may still happen later. After all, I am only a third way through.

I like the structure so far, too. Lydia’s death has been interrupted for a few chapters until her funeral just like how she’s never noticed when alive. Even Nath misses her coffin being lowered into the ground. “It’s gone,” he realises because he’s so preoccupied with monitoring Jack’s every move during the ceremony. Poignantly, the most detailed account of Lydia comes from the coroner’s autopsy, painstakingly, as required by law, describes the process of asphyxiation by drowning, which juxtaposes with the empty pages of her journals that Marilyn has bought her each year for the 10 whole years. 

I am really looking forward to reading how Ng delves deeper and deeper under the surface of this “model” family.


About W. S. Lien

Tweed Wearer - Country Lover - Teacher Researching Professionalism and Identity@Clare College, Cambridge - Keen Amateur Photographer - Devotee to Poppy my Labrador
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