Wednesday 17 July 2019

Amazon's Book of the Year 2014: Literary thriller US loves

Ruth Gilligan on a literary thriller that has taken America by storm

American author Celeste Ng
American author Celeste Ng

You may never have heard of Celetse Ng but this book, her debut novel, has beaten Hilary Mantel, Stephen King and all the other big names to take the Book of the Year title for 2014. It's already been a New York Times bestseller and may well now repeat the success on this side of the Atlantic.

Ng (pronounced 'ing') grew up in Pennsylvania and Ohio, in a Chinese-American family of scientists, studied literature at Harvard and now lives in Massachusetts with her husband and son, where she teaches fiction writing.

In the opening lines of Everything I Never Told You, Ng tells us this: 'Lydia is dead. But they don't know it yet.'

Next she tells us of the mysterious circumstances surrounding the 15-year-old's disappearance; of the secrets and lies and unopened diaries which might hold some sort of clue.

So far, so Gone Girl.

But Lydia's diaries, it turns out, are blank. Every one of them, lined up without a word. So we begin to suspect that Ng's female-victim thriller might in fact be saying something different to the rest.

Lydia herself has always been defined by difference. Born to an all-American mother and a Chinese-American father, she and her siblings, Nath and Hannah, are the only 'Orientals' in their entire school. This may not be all that surprising in 1977 suburban Ohio; however what does surprise is the extent of the prejudice this interracial family experiences on a daily basis.

Even beyond this external judgment, the family's internal dynamic is built entirely around anxieties of race and assimilation, as each member struggles to find comfort in their own skin.

'How had it begun?' Ng asks. 'Like everything: with mothers and fathers.'

Jumping between points of view, Ng takes us back to when Lydia's ambitious mother Marilyn first fell for her American History professor, James. Charting the difficulties of their multi-ethnic romance (at the time, half the country still deemed such a union illegal), Ng shows how Lydia ultimately offers her parents a chance to start again; to realise all the things they never could. As Ng writes: 'She absorbed [her] parents' dreams.'

For Marilyn, the dream is to be exceptional, to excel in a male-dominated world. So Lydia's life becomes an endless stream of study and tests and homework exercises. James though, dreams of the opposite - of blending in. So he inundates his daughter with clothes and jewellery and sly comments about making friends, longing for her to find acceptance in the popular, all-white elite.

As Lydia begins to suffocate under the pressure of being 'pulled both ways', her siblings must also suffer the consequences of living in her shadow. This culminates one day in Nath pushing his sister into the lake - a moment which foreshadows the tragedy of everything to come.

Such echoes occur throughout the book, while the parents' anxious demands also recur again and again. So when Marilyn gives yet another lecture on the importance of schoolwork, Lydia's thoughts may begin to echo the reader's: 'Oh god. . .­ not again.'

But by suffusing her crime thriller with issues of gender and race, Ng does succeed in doing something new. Unsurprisingly, comparisons have been made with The Lovely Bones, but for me Ng's novel bares closer resemblance to Serial, the podcast currently taking America by storm as it re-examines the suspicious murder trial of an Asian-American female.

Either way, it is clear to see why Everything I Never Told You has topped Amazon's 100 best books for 2014. Let's just hope Ng decides to tell us another story again soon.

Everything I Never Told You; Celeste Ng; Blackfriars, tpbk, 304pp, €12.99

Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

Ruth Gilligan is an author and actress

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