On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong: A review

Ocean Vuong's first book was a much-praised book of poems in 2016 entitled Night Sky With Exit Wounds. On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is his enigmatically named second book. It is a semi-autobiographical work of literary fiction, but it, too, often reads like poetry. And I never did learn where that title came from.

Vuong is a Vietnamese-American writer who was born in Saigon, but his family became refugees after the Vietnam War and ended up in Hartford, Connecticut where he was raised. The family that he writes about in his novel also live in Hartford.

His main character is a young writer, in his late 20s. He is the narrator of the story but he narrates through the medium of a letter to his mother. His mother who cannot read.

In the letter, he writes of the family history, going back to the time of the war and the life of his grandmother who lived through it. At the time that we meet her, she is elderly and suffering from schizophrenia and cancer. During the war, she worked as a prostitute for American servicemen and as a bar girl. The Vietnamese community considered her a traitor because of her relationships with the enemy.

The grandmother, named Lan, met an American serviceman named Paul and against all odds, they fell in love. They got married. Lan already had a daughter from an earlier arranged marriage. When she married Paul, she was already pregnant with another daughter, but it was not his baby. The child was conceived from one of her professional relationships.

The couple became separated by the war, but afterward, Lan made it to America with her two daughters and looked for Paul. When she found him, he was married to someone else. Nevertheless, they remained in touch and our narrator considered Paul his grandfather.

The narrator is known to everyone as Little Dog. His father was abusive to his mother and they finally separated, leaving his mother to support the family with her work at a nail salon and at a factory. His mother suffers from PTSD as a result of her experiences as a child during the war and she is abusive but also loving toward Little Dog. She barely speaks English and never learned to read, but now Little Dog addresses this letter to her.

The second part of the novel is particularly strong as Little Dog details his experiences as a child and young man growing up and coming to terms with his homosexuality. As a teenager, he spends a summer working in the tobacco fields outside of Hartford where he meets Trevor, a slightly older boy. It's with Trevor that he experiences his first love affair. It is doomed, but it is a formative relationship for Little Dog, one in which he describes to his mother (and us) just how he loses himself in the ecstasy of their time together.

Vuong's writing, his use of language, is very powerful and he caught me with it from the first lines of his book. The Vietnamese-American experience is one that resonates strongly with me and I found this novel very hard to put down. It's not a perfect book - the prose does occasionally take on shades of purple - but any quibbles that I have with it are minor. On the whole, I found it a compelling read.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars    

Comments

  1. I have heard so much about this book. I want to read it. Wonderful review, Dorothy!

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    Replies
    1. I think you will love it when you get to it on your vast TBR list!

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