It isn’t always necessary to be able to relate to art. It helps to elevate something when the audience can see themselves in the characters, when experiences ring true and recall events that have been lived through as well, and a mediocre work sometimes can find success in appealing to shared experiences. But If the work in question (be it visual art, music, a film, or a book) is well crafted and woven with accuracy and passion then it becomes transcendent and being able to identify oneself with the work loses all importance. The need to be represented is unnecessary, for the themes and art take on a life of their own, speaking to a part of you that understands beyond a shared history or constructed connections. Celeste Ng’s work is, in my opinion, a masterpiece – and accomplished on the author’s debut publication, no less.
The novel begins with the death of a Chinese American teenage girl who was found dead, after drowning in the lake close to her home. So many novels in recent years have begun in a very similar way (The Lovely Bones and Mystic River are the first two that come to my mind) and beyond publications, also in film and television the death of a young woman serves as a catalyst for all the action that will be taking place (The Killing, Twin Peaks, innumerable episodes of television procedurals and movie mysteries). But where most of these works focus on the investigation, the whodunit, and culminate in a finale that tends to be explosive and revelational, Ng’s beautiful novel takes a quieter and different approach to this type of story.
Each chapter alternates between the life of the Lee family before and after middle daughter Lydia’s death. The investigation and the focus on the mysterious details surrounding the girl’s death take a back seat and instead the story focuses on the dynamics that shape the Lee family’s life and how it all unravels when a child is taken, revealing how precarious life is but also how unstable a family can be, surviving on a dangerously unsteady foundation until something completely dismantles what was barely there to begin with. Eventually the truth surrounding Lydia’s death is revealed, so the reader is not left wondering what happened, but as a testament to Ng’s writing, it doesn’t really matter because of how invested we become in the routine life of these people.
The novel takes place in the 1970s in a small Ohio town. As I mentioned earlier, the family is Chinese American made up of the father, James, a white mother, Marilyn and their three children: in addition to Lydia there is an older brother, Nath, and a mostly invisible and forgotten youngest child, Hannah. An interracial marriage in a small midwestern town absent of any other minority of any kind makes this novel also a fascinating account of the ways in which race and identity, cultural and familial expectations, sexism, racism, and internalized prejudices intermingle and manifest. Ng doesn’t overdramatize or overly focus on any of these aspects making them too obvious or revealing, she knows better than to do that. Instead each big or small trauma is showcased for what it is, acknowledged but not always analyzed or broken down, showcasing the mundanity of these issues and what results they cause.
Very few times has dialogue ever rang as true as is showcased by this fantastic novel. There are no speeches to grandstand on, no monologue that wraps up all the meaning and truth the novel wants to showcases, in fact so much gets left unsaid, just like in real life. What does get said is uncomfortably realistic, especially instances involving James and his interactions with his children. Only once, in the film The Squid and the Whale, have I witnessed the depiction of an unhappy and unraveling family so realistically portrayed that stayed away from melodrama and over the top actions and instead accurately showed the very real ways in which a family just fizzles out of existence, slowly replaced by strangers occupying the same spaces.
The novel is not entirely bleak, even though the subject matter is. There are beautiful moments of romance, hope, and even joy – because even in the darkest of times life does offer some respite and Ng manages to show how that happens, even when all seems lost and unsurmountable. So much of the success of this novel doesn’t lie in the plot, but in what the author’s writing illuminates about humanity and in the emotions she can evoke even with the simplest of observations. I believe that this is an incredibly auspicious beginning, and if Celeste Ng can continue to write such stories, we have a new fantastic author to look forward to reading for many years to come.