Tense, in writing, is one cue that the current scene is either a flashback or something that happened yesterday. But everything happened at least the day before, so the point in time compared to now is always a sort of reflective, subjective view.
There's a back and forth working in Everything I Never Told You that takes one frame of mind for another and back again. There's four main characters and the little sister. She gets the shrift of things for the most part and from there you're in. You step into this world where everybody is in their own heads, their own little castle bumping up against others and the rubble that chips away is what's left to put together.
And together from all those chunks of masonry, of mortar and smashed bricks, lies the emotional core of this novel from Celeste Ng. People are in it for themselves insofar as only being able to read their own minds. You can't read someone else's thoughts, the friction of which creates the story, and ultimately the frustration, of living with other people. So we have to deal with the chips and chunks we can put together and make tea leaf readings from.
But like in real life, when you don't have full access to all the brickwork, you're left trying to yank, yoink and pull off the creeping vines from the side of the house, vainly trying to clear a picture. If you do, you'll be sopping wet from the sweat of getting to it. If you fail, you'll get cuts and shredded up all the same.
The entire novel is driven by this line of thought from Lydia:
She would do everything her mother told her. Everything her mother wanted.
Therein lies the unexpected strangle of promises made by a child in despair. It's a quiet line in the scheme of things. A quiet line as their world unravels and destroys them from within. It's an internal promise that, like the rest of things left unspoken between chapters, feeds into a lust of wanting the characters to say it already. To out and out vomit their bottled mind cogs. But they can't, and the struggle is real. It's a working tense.
Pitting microagressions into the fray also shows up how much they chip away at us, eroding our own sense of self. One comment or remark at a time and it builds up. It's a craft in the things that are said, the things not said, and all that that implies.
Everything I Never Told You is about choking back on words and thoughts and where that leads you. How that drags all those around down into the well that needs a bit of air to clear it all and set things right. Life is nothing like that. The unravelling frustration of it all is worth a read.
Reviewed on Sunday, 5 July 2015