After Jenny Erpenbeck’s intricately constructed The End of Days I felt the need for some good old-fashioned straightforward storytelling and Celeste Ng’s debut seemed to fit the bill. Set in 1977, it’s the story of a family whose oldest daughter disappears one night. A few days later the police arrive with the awful news that Lydia has been found drowned in the lake close to the family home. Ng’s novel quietly unravels what lies behind Lydia’s death.
Marilyn and James Lee meet in college: she’s a bright student, focused on a career in medicine, who elects to take a course in American history; he’s the young professor teaching it. They fall in love and marry when Marilyn is already pregnant with their first child, determined to resume her studies as soon as she can. Settling in Wildwood, Ohio, they’re something of an oddity: James is Chinese-American, Marilyn is white – this is the 1950s and mixed race marriages are still illegal in some states. Frustrated by the thwarting of her ambitions, Marilyn disappears briefly in the summer of 1966, leaving her family with only a torn up note in explanation. Neither Lydia nor her elder brother Nath ever quite recover, and soon Marilyn is pregnant again with Hannah the third child who will often find herself ignored. Acutely aware of his own alienation, James is determined that Lydia be popular while Marilyn joyfully accepts her daughter’s apparent interest in science as a second chance for her. Terrified that her mother might disappear again, Lydia plays along with the idea, struggling at school and resorting to cheating to achieve good grades. She has no friends – Nathan, due to leave for Harvard, is her only support – until Jack, apparently the town Lothario, takes an interest in her. Meanwhile Hannah looks on.
Ng weaves James and Marilyn’s stories through the events of 1977, revealing what has brought them both to such a degree of self-deception about their children and themselves. It’s rare that a novel’s title fits it quite so well as Ng’s for her debut, littered as it is with people who never tell each other how they feel, sometimes with terrible consequences. The journey is a painful one exploring as it does the childhood agony of being different at school, casual unthinking racism and the frustrations of housewifery. Ng can be a little heavy-handed at times but it’s a quietly gripping novel and I’ll be interested to see what she does next.