Review: Everything I Never Told You

The more I turn this book over in my mind, the more I admire it.

In Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng has created an intricate and polished depiction of tragic events in a claustrophobic and contracting family sphere. Every time I consider another angle – themes, tone, iconography, historical context – I’m impressed by the care and sophistication of the work.

Tonally it reverberated with Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye and Stephen Dobyn’s Church Of The Dead Girls.  They share the sense of a series of moments that illuminate a lingering initial image in a cloistered world.  Ng brings that seeping revelatory technique to a family in small town Ohio pre-1980.  I feel the echoes of those other works but Everything is distinct.

The plot and characters all mesh intricately and organically.  It opens with a tragedy and oozes outward, though Everything is not a mystery. The puzzle frames the ideas rather than being the end.  That’s true of well-crafted mysteries as well – and I cast no shade on the genre – but Everything‘s world is messier and earthier than most genre settings. Different readers will come to different conclusions about the family here, yet the motivations and themes are clear and complex.

In addition to its literary power, Ng connects her plot and characters into a world that is simultaneously realistic and nostalgic.  One can feel the nods toward popular culture and the care given to accuracy. Those can be at odds, and Ng chooses the cultural iconography and historical themes well.  even things that feel incidental often become more illuminating on reflection.

The narrative incorporates more traditional literary iconography as well. Ng does the tricky work of balancing her characters’ realism and structural roles with uncommon skill.  Symbolism that might be too on the nose in a similar plot almost snuck up on me here.

It’s also a compelling read.  I’d like to say it’s a fun read, but that’s false.  The experience is a lot like my idea of wrestling a boa constrictor.  Everything about the novel becomes more claustrophobic and urgent as the narrative catches up to the climax from multiple angles.  As the book goes on and the characters grow more defined, individual scenes seamlessly jump between points of view.  That results in a sense of simultaneous disorientation and intensity.  Other techniques are deployed with similar virtuosity.

Overall, it’s a deep powerful novel.

A must.

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