What can I say about On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous that hasn’t already been said? Across the board, I read rave reviews for Ocean Vuong’s first novel so I was excited to take my turn in the library queue. (And somehow ended up with a large print copy but I didn’t hate it.)
Our narrator is Little Dog, a young man writing to his mother. Except his mother’s English is faltering and she can’t read so he writes knowing it is unlikely she’ll ever read his words. This helps the reader to understand how Little Dog writes with such brutal honest. About his feelings toward her, toward her mother, toward his missing father. About his feelings as an immigrant, an Other in the middle of America. About his drug use and his falling in love with another boy.
If you’re hoping for a plot or straightforward action, you’ll be disappointed. It’s clear that Vuong is a poet and he writes beautifully. The descriptions of places, the way he captures the physicality of the characters, his word choice is stunning from beginning to end. Whether a shed in Vietnam or a tobacco field in Connecticut, Vuong brings the scene to life. The narration meanders from memory to memory, not necessarily in chronological order. We slowly learn about Little Dog’s childhood, as well as the histories of his mother and grandmother. The history of Vietnam and the Vietnam War in particular are at the centre of their lives. By showing how one family is torn apart by war – and the long-reaching affects of war – Vuong quietly demonstrates how a nation is destroyed, both Vietnam and America.
Little Dog moves to the US with his family as a child and quickly becomes his mother’s interpreter and protector, a common story for so many immigrant children. He and his mother are fiercely bonded and their relationship is complicated. There are no easy answers or simple conclusions and this makes Little Dog’s story feel very true. We witness him struggling to find the balance between love and loyalty to his family and striking out on his own in a country and life entirely different from anything they could imagine.
This book won’t be for everyone but if you don’t mind slow moving and thoughtful then I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy here.