This is an incredible exploration of grief, family and identity and the pressures of expectations that come from each.
The book opens with a death, one that nobody else knows about yet, the death of Lydia Lee; middle child of Marilyn and James and sister to older brother Nathan and younger sister Hannah. Lydia’s death and its aftermath exposes the cracks and fault lines in the family life and tenuous relationships of the Lee family. Feelings and incidents that have gone unspoken all come bubbling to the surface as each family member tries to come to terms with the circumstances of Lydia’s death and the parts of her life they didn’t know about.
Celeste Ng tells the story in an intricate chronology that mixes together past, present and even the future all in a non-linear fashion. While this could get easily confusing in her hands you are never lost. Instead you slowly gain an insight into each member of the Lee family, their experiences, hopes and dreams. How those have shaped them and influenced others around them.
James Lee is from a Chinese background and Marilyn is not. Their relationship in 1950s America has been controversial with Marilyn ostracized by her mother following their marriage. James is a professor of American History who has always strived to fit into the country his parents adopted. Marilyn was a gifted scientist who gave up her academic studies to start a family with James. Both these experiences have fed into what each of them expects of, and for, their children.
While this is ultimately a very sad story it is also a moving and insightful story about the weight of identity. How that weight is put on us by people around us and how that weight is passed down generations and how the best intentions can have tragic and unforeseen consequences.
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One of the most uncompromising, unflinching, page-turning books I have read in a long time. It is a harrowing story that forces you to confront and challenge many important issues; gender, poverty, race and class to list but a few.
Mireille is visiting her Haitian parents in Port-au-Prince with her American husband and baby son when their car is stopped and Mireille is kidnapped. Her kidnappers demand a ransom from her wealthy father who refuses to pay. What follows is thirteen days of horror and deprivation.
The novel is told in two distinct parts; before and after. During Mireille’s horrific ordeal we get flashbacks to her life before; her childhood growing up in America, the wealth her family enjoy and the story of how she met and fell in love with her husband. Interspersed with the flashbacks is Mirelle’s father and husband’s story as they come into conflict over what should be done to get Mireille back. And all the time Mireille must endure the torment of her captors.
Roxane Gay does not take a backward step throughout the novel. You are forced to confront, firstly what her captors do to her and what this means for Mireille afterwards. Mireille must change herself to survive, she must bury her humanity to somehow protect it. She is broken mentally and physically and must somehow find a way to put herself back together, if that is even possible, a recover what humanity she has left. Gay’s portrayal of the post traumatic stress Mireille suffers is as honest, raw and emotional as the trauma she experiences.
While what happens to Mireille is confronting Roxane Gay uses this to open your eyes to other aspects we should also confront. She challenges us as a reader to explore the way we think about gender, race and class. Gender is at the heart of the violence that is done to Mirielle but the cause is wealth and poverty with everyone’s perceptions clouded by race.
This a novel that will shock you, surprise you and make you rethink your view of the world and the people in it. It is exactly what all great fiction should do and does so with style, honesty and empathy. It will strike a nerve, it will make you angry and break your heart and is a novel you will never forget, and nor should you.
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