Much has been made of the opening two sentences: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” And while the question of why she dies takes the book’s entire length to answer, it’s not a mystery in the traditional sense. It is, instead, a portrait of a family struggling with secrets and differences and longing—even before Lydia’s death.
I saw several reviews today by readers who were angry that Celeste Ng had a character drown because she couldn’t swim—as if that’s never happened in real life. Or that they were a family already struggling under the challenges of a mixed marriage in a small community in the 1970s, a community with no other Asian residents. Again, like no family has ever struggled with such challenges. I don’t get that criticism.
What I do get is that the novel is, quite simply, a beautifully written book about identity, secrets, the desire for a center that holds under stress, and of course, about horrific grief and what it does to everyone in the family after a tragic loss. The prose is graceful and rich, without trying to be ostentatious. It literally captivated me from the opening paragraphs.
And so Celeste Ng goes onto my list of authors who have written beautiful debut novels and about whom I have to remain envious.