I have sometimes begged books for explanations. Clues. Just a hint of what’s really going on beneath the surface. Other times, the tension, the frisson of the moment is what lures me in and keeps me turning pages despite not knowing exactly what happened that fateful night. Or afternoon. Or morning. And when the solution provided comes from totally unexpected quarters, it’s an unforseen bonus that gives me a sigh of satisfaction. Such is the case with Brian Leung’s All I Should Not Tell.
Conner Grayson is a fourteen-year-old boy living in rural Kentucky with his mother and his younger brother, Sammy. Their father committed suicide a few years earlier, and their mother remarries a man named Cudge, who sexually abuses Conner and indicates Sammy is next. Conner decides to kill him the weekend his mother is away visiting relatives. He and Sammy are supposed to be at Conner’s best friend (and lover) Mark’s, but he slips out to kill Cudge only to find him already dead in the bathtub. Even stranger, when he returns home, Mom is there but the body is not. He’s simply disappeared. Skip forward twenty years, and Cudge’s disappearance is still unresolved. When Cudge’s father shows up, determined to find out what happened to his son, he stirs up more than just memories.
Leung conjures a compelling voice for Conner, both at fourteen and at thirty-four. Having left for college, he has returned to his small town and is living in the house in which he grew up. Mark is long gone, Mom is dead, and Sammy has gone the route of his father and killed himself, but those losses are offset by Conner’s pregnant wife, Lamb, as well as his boyfriend, James. As the blurb says, “it’s complicated.” But boy or man, his voice remains the same–considering every action from all angles and putting his loved ones above his own feelings. This, however, does not extend to Skee, Cudge’s father, whom he treats with contempt at the best of times as he was so deeply scarred by Cudge.
Lamb and James are not as well-defined as Conner or even Skee, but they are bit players in Conner’s drama and not onstage long enough for this to make a difference. I would liked to have seen more of how those relationships worked, but it’s not their story. That belongs to Conner and Cudge, and Leung takes full advantage of the menace in that relationship in the beginning of the book and the memory of it later. The explanation for Cudge’s disappearance, when it comes, is somewhat abrupt. However, that doesn’t detract from its impact. Besides, giving more clues earlier would have undercut the air of genuine perplexity that pervades the book.
Brian Leung’s All I Should Not Tell is a stylish and unique mystery/coming of age story with plenty of dread, a refreshing, unique voice, and a satisfying ending that was a perfect beginning to my year of reading.
© 2023 Jerry L. Wheeler