It’s small town Ohio in the seventies, and Marilyn and James Lee wake up one morning to find their most beloved daughter, Lydia, missing. Soon after, her fragile body will be dragged from the lake, and nothing will ever be the same again.
Marilyn and James have poured all their hopes and dreams into Lydia. To Marilyn, she has the chance to be a successful Scientist, a pioneer in her field – a chance to achieve the dream that Marilyn herself was forced to abandon almost two decades ago. To James, Lydia represents all that he could never reach – the chance to be popular, to be liked, to fit in amongst the masses of blonde-haired and blue-eyed girls at school, despite the fact that she clearly stands out.
It is with the disappearance of Lydia that the fissures within the Lee family bubble up to the surface, and we realise how much of their family dynamic hinges on words unspoken, things left unsaid.
“Later, when they look back on this last evening, the family will remember almost nothing. So many thing swill be pared away by the sadness to come. Nath, flushed with excitement, chattered through dinner, but none of them – including him – will remember this unusual volubility, or a single word he said. They will not remember the early-evening sunlight splashing across the tablecloth like melted butter, or Marilyn saying, The lilacs are starting to bloom.”
Ng seamlessly transitions in and out of different character voices in their third-person perspective, giving us the privilege of an insight into their psyche that is denied to their closest loved ones. Nath, the oldest, counts down the days to the summer when he can finally escape small-town life and start his degree at Harvard, oblivious to the pain this causes Lydia. Hannah, the youngest – an afterthought, an aside – squirrels away possessions of the others, a way, perhaps, of forming some kind of desperate connection with them.
As a family portrait, Ng excels in opening up the cracks in a family in a raw, real way. Her examination of racial prejudice is painful – the insidious daily occurrences of racism, the way they let it wash over them like a tide – after all, what can be done? It’s going to be a long time before families like theirs will gain acceptance. Ng masterfully demonstrates this sense of unease, of never quite belonging.
This book is a quiet one, full of pauses, silences, a beautiful rendering of moments; the painful and pleasurable and everything in between.