I recently had the opportunity to read two very similar books: ‘Everything I never told you’ by Celeste Ng and ‘The Perfect Nanny’ by Leila Slimani. Both these books claimed to revolve around a crime; a suicide in the former book and the murder of two children in the latter. They both received great reviews and awards and worldwide recognition. They were both promoted as suspenseful, psychological thrillers.
I’ve recently been trying to read books from different genres, other than the usual murder. Honestly, I’ve gotten bored reading murder. A dead body within the first few chapters. Some form of law enforcement with a spunky duo. A clue at all the predicted points of the plot. The all-too-obvious reveal. (PS: it’s always for money). I tried reading Shopaholic series and that was hilarious. I tried reading some YA novels, like Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson and though it revolved around crime too, it was layered and it kept me on the hook. As long as it’s unpredictable, I’m in. The Burning Sky by Sherry Thomas was unfortunately a bit too predictable and I am stuck with the dilemma of whether I should finish this series or leave it halfway. I even tried the horror genre with Mexican Gothic by Silvia-Moreno Garcia and that was so different from anything I’ve ever read. Following that, I read The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. I didn’t like how they left the ending unexplained, but I did have a few bad dreams while reading that book. So it scores, on the spooky side. I also read a few classics like Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen which was brilliant. It’s astonishing to me, how she so perfectly captured my mother’s character in Mrs Bennett, when my mother wouldn’t even be born until a 150 years after the book was published. I read Frankenstein by Mary Shelly after watching the Doctor Who episode, The Haunting of Villa Diodati. Thanks to misleading pop culture, people tend to assume the name of the monster is Frankenstein and English majors are always quick to point out that Frankenstein wasn’t the name of the monster, and that he was merely called “The Creature”. But if you read the book, you’d realise, in playing God, Victor Frankenstein did, in fact become the Monster.
So having sampled these multiple genres, I turned to the so-called psychological thrillers. I read Celeste Ng’s work first. It was a short book and I had hoped to finish it soon. Unfortunately, it droned on and on. Neither of the books have any major dialogue. In fact, I think both authors pride themselves on being able to convey scenes without dialogue. In part, that is what makes the book interesting. But I guess the real reason is, none of the characters have anything unique to say to each ever. ‘Everything I never told you’ is about the family of a girl who committed suicide. She can’t withstand the academic pressures her mother subjects her to, or the social pressures her father subjects her to. Apparently, she even got a book about making friends and being popular, from her father. We see that her mother regrets giving up her career and so forces great academic visions on her. Her father was a loner and wanted to be popular. Both of them are trying to make up for their lost childhood dreams. It’s a simple enough story, and to be honest, that is all there is to the book. It’s not the murder mystery of the century. It’s not even a unique psychological case because it is the story of a mundane family. We don’t just know the story already, we’ve lived it. (Or we know someone who does). This is why the scenes don’t have dialogue. You already know the dialogues. There really isn’t anything unique to say because we’ve either said it or been on the receiving end. The characters are stereotypes, to put it bluntly.
So, why did I finish it? Honestly, I thought towards the last chapter, there would be some O Henry level surprise twist. I was in for a shock as there was no twist. Some would say, that in itself is a twist. I call it a let-down. The family comes to terms with it and moves on. Again, something that also happens in real life. People move on, life goes on. There is no story, because you already know everything that’s going to happen.
‘The Perfect Nanny’ is another crime story that has absolutely nothing to do with the crime. The books starts with the murder of the kids. The rest of the book tries to provide a motive. Honestly, I still don’t know why she killed them. Apparently, it’s inspired by a real life case. The Nanny is perfect, as the title suggests. The story is, again very simple; a typical family trying to live an ordinary life. The characters are unmemorable and predictable, probably because you have met them in real life. I would like to call them template characters. They fit the societal mould perfectly; the societal idea of a normal family. Nothing new or interesting. They are not funny or witty. Both the books are filled with such template characters. They are just emotional people, a bit too emotional for my taste. My problem with both the books lies here. They have characters I could not care less about. They are so normal, I’m inclined to believe such normal and boring people do not even exist. Anyone who’s ever spent time with people, knows that such templates are non-existent and each person has a different approach to life. They have a unique interest. They may or may not have a zest of life. But at least some people, are sarcastic or funny or witty. How come not one character in either of these books, is interesting? Both the authors have tried to capture a normal household and they have chosen only the traits all households have. The uniqueness that makes characters memorable is missing. Leo Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. Yet somehow, both authors have proved that all unhappy families are alike too.
As templates, they exist to channel the emotion of the reader. A reader may find themselves in a similar situation, although without the macabre deaths, and think, “Yes, I understand what this character is going through because I have felt the same way in the past”. These books may work as cheap therapy sessions to process unresolved feelings from childhood or to channel the emotional pressures of adulthood, but one must ask the question, “Does it present reality in all its glory and gore or does it just glorify a depressing life?”
To write about everyday events, takes unique skill. One must acknowledge that the reader has also lived an everyday-life. We are not spies in the Soviet era trying to smuggle in encrypted messages. We are not Kings and Queens of nations long-forgotten, fighting dragons and witches. We are not kids who have stumbled upon a forgotten universe at the back of a wardrobe. We are not one of twenty four kids randomly chosen to die at each other’s hands, although such a dystopian future isn’t far off. We are people who have already experienced a mundane and boring life, firsthand. To draw the reader in, the author must point out, not the boring and depressing parts of life, but rather the part that makes such a boring life, worth living. The hope that despite such events, there is still light at the end of the tunnel. Even if there is no light, there are moments along the tunnel, that are less frightening; moments which prove that the journey through the dark tunnel wasn’t a complete waste of time. For God’s sake, it’s 2020! If I wanted to read something this depressing and pointless, I’d read the newspaper!