Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You is a finely crafted narrartive. Like all good art it is suggestive and rarely pushes us in one direction or another. An artistic novel, like a photograph by Edward Weston or Dorothea Lange, emotes different responses from different people. Ng's initial novel, which I think is a book I keep on my shelf and want to return to later because I know I never really saw or understood all of what I was experiencing. Really good books at like that. Ng's Little Fires Everywhere is really very different from her first work. The focus of the new novel is important and deals with subjects quite significant: parentage, racial identity, family, what it means to be an artist, the development of personal identity in children in a family, and more. All issues which are important to try to understand. And Ng's tale wrestles with all of these subjects . I read this book and found the narrative flow interesting and the characters individualized and representative but Ng's subtle and suggestive touch and deft technique found in her first book was lacking in this work As a reader I felt she was masking documentary in the shape of fiction. Of course the two can be merged into such masterpieces as Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath or Evan's and Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
Emily Dickinson wrote: "Tell All the Truth but tell it Slant." Which I think is in a nutshell what art is all about. There are parts of Ng's work that were quite wonderful, especially the places in the novel where the Richardson teens struggle to achieve identity. Also how Mia the artist gave a kind of emotional shelter to the two Richardson girls, away from their controlling mother and the family's socially and economically privileged position in their Shaker Heights community. .
But there are parts of the novel that seemed, for me at least, overly irksome or just tiresome. Mia, the single mother and central character, uses photography in her artistic projects. Being a professional photographer, I was interested in all the equipment the young artist acquired during her formal education studying at a university under the guidance of a woman who had established herself as a master artist with a camera, like Berenice Abbott at the New School of Social Research or Walker Evans at Yale. But Ng's story lags when she gets quite technical. Way too much information about cameras and tilts and swings offered by a view camera that most readers never need to know. Also I really struggled when it came to Ng's description of Mia's art works. Can you really understand the essence of Hieronymus Bosch's works or any visual artist with words. Like reading a book of art history without the pictures. The last part of the book is important since it focuses on art works Mia has created for each Richardson in the family, including the mother and father. This is a crucial part of the story but trying to picture in one's mind each individual piece of art left in an envelope for the family as a gift was so difficult. I had to read each description two or three times to get some hold on the visual image of each art object.
Ng's first novel was crafted in such a way that we had to participate with her in discovering the Truth (Dickinson's term) that the story allowed us to formulate from the details of the narrative. In Little Fires Ng seems to force her hand, pushes us in a direction she wants us to go, rather than presenting us with a story which readers will use to explore the subject matter and discover for themselves meaning which the details of the book evoke. A good novel is not like a jigsaw puzzle but like a box of Legos, where readers are allowed to take the pieces of the story and imagine or formulate an understanding based on characterization, dialogue, scenes, conflicta, and story line that the writer gives us.