18 August 2015


Celeste Ng's first novel is a winner.
From the opening page to the very last, this work of fiction wows. Hard to label. A bit of mystery, yes. Family drama, yes. Cultural portrait [the 70’s] definitely. Reflection on life on the margins, affirmative, and the power, and potential devastation, of intimate personal relationships, oh yes. This novel has it all.

The writing is pitch perfect. Skillful and elegant, Celeste Ng writes powerfully descriptive prose. She is in everyone’s head at once, and this is a very difficult voice to achieve. Riveting. I was in awe.

The noise outside the car was deafening: a million marbles hitting a million tin roofs, a million radios all crackling on the same non-station. By the time she shut the door, she was drenched. She lifted her hair and bowed her head and let the rain soak the curls beneath. The drops smarted against her bare skin. She leaned back on the cooling hood of the car and spread her arms wide, letting the rain needle her all over.

Ng draws us in and holds us in the palm of her hand on a roller-coaster ride with one mixed-face family [Chinese-American] at a time when mixed marriages had just been legalized. Add the emergence of modern feminism and the conflict between generations of women. And a dose of the Mars-Venus male-female thing. This novel is a great study in contrasts and contradictions. Who pays the price? Everyone, although the children most of all, and in this, Ng skillfully depicts the trauma of loss, from the seemingly benign to the most painful. This was a time when no one was paying much attention to the profound impact of parental behavior on the children.

Simple on the surface. A teenage girl has disappeared. Her brother believes he knows what happened. Her mother, a disappointed woman, living dreams through her daughter, realizes she doesn’t have a clue. The father, a professor, is, in fact, clueless and self-absorbed. And the younger daughter, neglected in the dramatic maelstrom, has unusual powers of observation, although no one is paying attention in the midst of this maelstrom.

It happened so quickly that if she were a different person, Hannah might have wondered if she’d imagined it. No one else saw. Nath was still turned away; Lydia had her eyes shut now against the sun. But the moment flashed lightning-bright to Hannah. Years of yearning had made her sensitive, the way a starving dog twitches its nostrils at the faintest scent of food. She could not mistake it. She recognized it at once: love, one-way deep adoration that bounced off and did not bounce back; careful, quiet love that didn’t care and went on anyway. It was too familiar to be surprising.

We learn where is all started and how it evolved, with a number of surprises along the way, and all is ultimately revealed in a poignant, breathtaking chapter. A literary page-turner, oh yes. 

One of the best pieces of contemporary writing I’ve read in a long time. Ng has published stories and essays, but in this first novel, she proves her mettle. I cannot wait to read what she writes next.

Now out in paperback and of course an e-book.