‘Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.’ So begins Everything I Never Told You — a brilliant novel offering a perfect snapshot of troubled family life. Set in a small college town in 1970’s Ohio, Marilyn and James Lee are a mixed-race couple who are determined that their children will overcome what they have worked their whole lives to escape. But the enormity of the pressure placed on the eldest child Lydia becomes too much and after she is found dead, the rest of the novel is spent tracing back through the two remaining siblings, Nathan and Hannah, and her parents’ lives both present and past to see how the family arrived at this breaking point.
Much to my mother’s dismay, I adore stories of dysfunctional families. Or perhaps it’s better to say that I love family dramas. I love it when a writer can build a world within a seemingly innocuous domestic scene, one that mirrors the outside world but also captures the insularity of family life, in all it’s comfort yet equal ability to stifle. Celeste Ng’s perfectly drawn characters and setting allow these opposing senses to leap off the page. I ached for Marilyn and James’ desire for Lydia to succeed in the world and completely understood that this vision of her future came from their own pain. There is Marilyn’s dream of Lydia escaping domestic life for that of an independent professional that she still holds on to with regret for her own life:
In her mind, Marilyn spun out Lydia’s future in one long golden thread, the future she was positive her daughter wanted, too: Lydia in high heels and a white coat, a stethoscope round her neck; Lydia bent over an operating table, a ring of men awed at her deft handiwork. Every day, it seemed more possible.
And there is James’ desire for his children to fit in, to overcome being the only Asian kids at school:
Though her father had never mentioned his schooldays, though she had never heard the story of her parents’ marriage or their move to Middlewood, Lydia felt the ache of it all, deep and piercing as a foghorn.
The emotion that Ng delivers page by page hit me hard. I found myself aching for Lydia, but also for Marilyn and James, despite the fact that damage they were causing was also leaping off the page. Because the pain in Ng’s novel is so fierce, yet so understated. At no point does the emotion become overwrought or overwritten. The writing is sparse and refuses to become bogged down in detail — instead it paints a portrait, allowing the reader to be swept up in the images portrayed, such as this haunting moment:
How was it possible to spend so many hours cooking eggs? Sunny-side up for James. Hard-boiled for Nath. Scrambled for Lydia. It behooves a good wife to know how to make an egg behave in six ways. Was she sad? Yes. She was sad. About the eggs. About everything.
Despite the focus of the story being on Lydia in so many ways, Ng’s writing of the two younger siblings Nathan and Hannah in many ways make this story so plausible and equally so beautiful. She so beautifully captures the vulnerability of the two forgotten children, right from the beginning where Hannah realises before everyone else in the family what could come of Lydia’s disappearance:
A vision of life without her sister in it had flashed across her mind. She would have the good chair at the table, looking out the window at the lilac bushes in the yard, the big bedroom downstairs near everyone else. At dinnertime, they would pass her the potatoes first. She would get her father’s jokes, her brother’s secrets, her mother’s best smiles.
This was such a wonderful novel to discover. I became completely swept up in it, reading it in two brief sittings. Ng makes such a compelling story from details that are not hidden from the reader, rather she peels away layer upon layer revealing the hopes and dreams and flaws and ugliness to all five central characters with such a deft touch that I wanted more with every page that I turned.
Everything I Never Told You would be such a perfect summer read — it’s captivating, beautiful and page turning. But for those of us in the northern hemisphere, I can think of no better way to spend an afternoon than to be swept up in this book while hiding from the cold grey outdoors. Perhaps the only thing that would make it better would be having a plate full of biscuits close to hand, and endless pots of tea. As part of my Christmas baking I’ve now made two batches of these delicious Zimtsterne, another addition to my baking of German advent biscuits. They are naturally gluten free and use no butter, so they are light and much easier to handle than buttery shortbreads that crumble or melt between batches. The meringue and almond meal base gives them a lovely chewy texture, and the meringue icing sets as it cooks in the oven to give a lovely light touch without being overly sweet. These biscuits are filled with Christmas spices, but are not overpowering. They would make wonderful gifts for friends, neighbours or teachers too. So although they do take some time (I found the icing of the biscuits with the sticky meringue before they went in the oven a little time consuming and fiddly), the end result is certainly worth it. Because what better time than Christmas to make your home smell and feel a little warmer, to make it feel a little bit more your own.
I came across this book through the hashtag #diversedecember — an online campaign to highlight literature written by BAME writers. Many of us, myself included, set goals to read more diversely yet either need a little push to keep the goal in focus or are just looking for suggestions outside of our usual reading styles. I wanted to write about two books by BAME writers this month, which I’ve now done. It’s a very small step, but it’s a start. It’s an acknowledgement that I could be reading a lot more diversely than I currently do.
One of my reading goals for 2015 was to read more work in translation and to be more conscious of what I was reading. Looking back on what I’ve read this year, I can happily say I’ve done this, though I still have a long way to go. To date I’ve read 66 books this year, 14 more than last year. But those by BAME authors only account for 9, or 14%, and those translated from languages other than English only account for 8, or 12%. In 2016 I’d like to increase both of these to 20%, with the hope that by the end of the year I will have also been able to read one book in German. My language skills being as they are, I know it will take a lot of time and patience to do this, but it was always one of my goals going into learning a new language, and I have to start somewhere.
But looking back on my goals for this year’s reading, I have done three things that I hoped to do: I’ve read (more than) one book a week, I’ve read a lot more books by women, and I’ve read a lot more books by Australian writers. My total books read written by women are 48, or 73%, compared to 18, or 27%, by men. This is a huge gain on 2014 where I read only 23 books, or 44%, written by women. I said in last year’s post with my reading figures that I wanted to achieve a 50/50 split this year, so I’ve certainly done more than that. And I read 20 books by Australian writers this year, or 30%, compared to the 12, or 23%, in 2014. I think most importantly, 15 of the books I read this year by Australian writers were written by women. That’s 75%. I’ve found a really wonderful solace in reading books that tell familiar stories, stories that are relatable by content, by setting, by voice. I think especially this year while I’ve been away from home and lonely, being able to hold on to this has been crucial.
More broadly, I read 19 books of non-fiction, or 29%, and 47 books of fiction, or 71%. There is a slight increase in non-fiction on last year’s 11 books, or 21%, but not surprisingly my heart still lives with contemporary literary fiction. Interestingly, only 3 of the 19 books of non-fiction I read this year were written by men. I’m sure there’s some fodder there for any anti-feminist readers of this blog.
So there are my stats. I think it’s really important to keep track of these, to set yourself goals, to acknowledge the power of what you read. For 2016, as I said, I hope there are more diverse books, more translated books, and hopefully one or two original language German books. But I also hope that I continue to read more than 50% of books written by women — it’s made such a huge impact on my reading this year, and will make itself particularly clear when I share my favourite books of 2015 next week. Keeping track of what I read reminds me of the worlds that open to readers in books. That the power of being able to read stories by Australian women and seeing myself, my family, my home on the page needs to be balanced by opening myself up to other’s worlds too. Books take us to places we may never go — let’s give them a chance to do that more often.
After the success of this month’s Diverse December campaign, the organisers have changed their account and hashtag to ReadDiverse2016. You can read more about the campaign through this blog post, and it’s well worth looking through the hashtag for reading recommendations too.