The BookBrowse Review

Published June 9, 2021

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Things We Lost to the Water
Things We Lost to the Water
by Eric Nguyen

Hardcover (4 May 2021), 304 pages.
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN-13: 9780593317952

A stunning debut novel about an immigrant Vietnamese family who settles in New Orleans and struggles to remain connected to one another as their lives are inextricably reshaped.

When Huong arrives in New Orleans with her two young sons, she is jobless, homeless, and worried about her husband, Cong, who remains in Vietnam. As she and her boys begin to settle in to life in America, she continues to send letters and tapes back to Cong, hopeful that they will be reunited and her children will grow up with a father.

But with time, Huong realizes she will never see her husband again. While she attempts to come to terms with this loss, her sons, Tuan and Binh, grow up in their absent father's shadow, haunted by a man and a country trapped in their memories and imaginations. As they push forward, the three adapt to life in America in different ways: Huong gets involved with a Vietnamese car salesman who is also new in town; Tuan tries to connect with his heritage by joining a local Vietnamese gang; and Binh, now going by Ben, embraces his adopted homeland and his burgeoning sexuality. Their search for identity--as individuals and as a family--threatens to tear them apart, un­til disaster strikes the city they now call home and they are suddenly forced to find a new way to come together and honor the ties that bind them.

August 1979

New Orleans is at war. The long howl in the sky; what else can it mean?

Hương drops the dishes into the sink and grabs the baby before he starts crying. She begins running toward the door—but then remembers: this time, another son. She forgets his name temporarily, the howl is so loud. What's important is to find him.

Is he under the bed? No, he is not under the bed. Is he hiding in the closet? No, he is not in the closet. Is he in the bathroom, then, behind the plastic curtains, sitting scared in the tub? He is not in the bathroom, behind the plastic curtains, sitting scared in the tub. And as she turns around he's at the door, holding on to the frame, his eyes watering, his cheeks red.

"Mẹ," he cries. Mom. The word reminds Hương of everything she needs to know. In the next moment she grabs his hand and pulls him toward her chest.

With this precious cargo, these two sons, she darts across the apartment, an arrow flying away from its bow, a bullet away from its gun. She's racing toward the door and leaping down the steps—but she can't move fast enough. The air is like water, it's like run­ning through water. Through an ocean. She feels the wetness on her legs and the water rising. And the sky, the early evening sky, with its spotting of stars already, is streaked red and orange like a fire, like an explosion suspended midair in that moment before the crush, the shattering, the death she's always imagined until some­one yells Stop, someone tells her to Stop.

And just like that, the sirens hush and the silence is violent: it slices, it cuts.

"Hurricane alarm," Bà Giang says. The old woman drops her ciga­rette. "Just a hurricane alarm. A test. Nothing to be afraid of." She reaches over and cups Hương's cheek.

"What do you mean?" Hương asks.

"A test. They're doing a test. In case something happens," Bà Giang says. "Go home now, cưng ơi. Go home. Get some rest. It's getting late."

"Late." Hương understands, or maybe she does not. A thousand thoughts are still settling in her mind. Where were the sounds from before? Not the alarm, but the grating calls of the grackles in the trees, the whistling breeze, a car speeding past—where are they now?

She notices Tuấn at the gates. Her eyes light up.

"Tuấn ơi," she calls.

Tuấn holds on to the bars of the gate and watches three boys riding past on bicycles. One stands on his pedals. Another rides without hands but only for a second before grabbing—in a pan­icked motion—the handlebars. A younger one tries to keep up on training wheels. Three boys. Three brothers.

"Tuấn ơi," Hương calls again.

Tuấn waves as the boys ride leisurely past. When they're gone, he returns, and Hương feels a mixture of pure happiness, comfort, and relief.

Up the dirt road. A mother and her sons. Hand in hand.

Excerpted from Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen. Copyright © 2021 by Eric Nguyen. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

A vivid portrait of a Vietnamese American family in New Orleans coping with loss and coming of age.

Print Article Publisher's View   

Spanning over 30 years, Eric Nguyen's debut novel Things We Lost to the Water is epic in scope but finely tuned into its characters' perceptions, anxieties and fraught relationships. It is an immigration story and a family narrative about secrets that divide and experiences that bind people together over decades and across oceans. Nguyen is a masterful composer, pulling readers close with quiet moments of striking emotion and then widening the scope for sonorous knells of grand devastation.

In 1978, Hương is in her early 20s and pregnant with her second child when she flees Saigon by boat with her young son, Tuấn. Her husband, Công, is supposed to come with them, but at the last moment they are separated. The boat takes Hương and Tuấn to Singapore, where Hương gives birth to her second son, Bình, and a refugee organization arranges to send them to New Orleans. From there, Hương sends letters, and later cassette tape recordings, back home as she waits for the day Công will join her in the United States. That day never comes.

The novel alternates perspectives between Hương, Tuấn and Bình. The boys grow up in East New Orleans in a Vietnamese housing project called Versailles (see Beyond the Book), and Nguyen provides a panoramic view of this insular community, where the children play a game called "I'm not American." It's a modified version of capture the flag based on what the kids must have heard about the Vietnam War from their parents (the game involves yelling, "The Americans are killing our people! The Americans are killing our crops!") but it's also a representation of defiance. This is not a narrative of grateful refugees finding a new home in the melting pot. There is no assimilation story here.

In one scene, Hương has a rare night on the town with a friend from work, Kim-Anh, who lives with her white American boyfriend, a man who tearfully tells Hương when Kim-Anh is out of earshot, "I saved her, you know." He calls her "Kim" and "Kimmie" and each time Kim-Anh corrects his pronunciation: "Keem-On." From Hương's conversation with him, it is clear the man expected something in the way of a demure Vietnamese wife in exchange for "saving" Kim-Anh. But that is not what he gets. Instead, she buys drinks with his money and dances with other men while he watches with increasing bitterness.

Nguyen's narrative voice is ruthless and very funny. In addition to the absurdity of the "I'm Not American" game, he recreates the nuances of southern patois with a vengeance, describing at one point a phrase Hương learns and employs often with her customers at the nail salon:

"Bless your heart," which meant, secretly, that they were dumb or lacking mental faculties or were otherwise impaired, but there was not a thing to be done about it—how pitiful they were, how one could pity them all day long until the cows came home. She said it to them all the time: Bless your heart! Bless your heart! Bless, your, heart!

Tuấn gets the short end of the plotlines. He briefly joins a street gang as a teenager before fading into the background while the more complex and fully formed Bình takes the stage. After a brief romance with another boy, Bình disappears into the gay club scene, where he feels like himself for the first time. But he also suffers the wrenching disappointments, heartache and shame about his sexuality that will likely be familiar to a majority of queer readers.

Life pulls the family apart. The boys become young men and strain in different directions, their mother left behind at Versailles. Hương and Bình have a terrible fight that becomes a years-long rift. But during the novel's cinematic climax, the family pulls together across their great distances, physical and metaphorical. All that has been unstitched feels momentarily mended, even as the world around them is torn asunder.

Despite some lulls in the Tuấn storyline and perhaps an overabundance of water-related metaphors, this is an exceptional debut novel. Nguyen works background and historical information into the text without breaking narrative stride, capturing the aftereffects of the Vietnam War as an integral part of family lore. The story is an artfully constructed arc, yet also full of small, meaningful vignettes in which ancillary characters, such as Kim-Anh, are given their brief moments of brilliance. Hương, Tuấn and Bình are delicately refined, and reify the experience of being swept up and scattered by the storm of diaspora.

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

Things We Lost to the Water introduces an exquisite new voice in author Eric Nguyen; his debut novel is a luminous, balletic portrayal of an immigrant Vietnamese family in the US...Nguyen navigates their multiple perspectives with dexterity and emotional clarity, aching but never maudlin. I loved every page.

Kirkus Reviews
In this decades-spanning novel, a family of Vietnamese refugees makes a home in New Orleans... Debut author Nguyen movingly portrays the way adopted homes can become as cherished and familiar as ancestral ones...An engrossing, prismatic portrait of first- and second-generation Vietnamese American life.

Publishers Weekly
[C] expansive portrayal of New Orleans's Vietnamese community...Readers will find this gripping and illuminating.

Booklist (starred review)
While the story arc might sound familiar—other-side-of-the-world refugees who endure challenging lives in the U.S.—Nguyen’s gentle precision nevertheless produces an extraordinary debut with undeniable resonance.

Author Blurb Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sympathizer
This is an elemental book, of water, for sure, but also of other elements of life, including love and loss. Vietnamese people know all about these elements, coming from a country whose entire length is bordered by a sea, and from a history saturated with loss. Love is one element that has enabled their survival, but sometimes at a cost. Eric Nguyen's powerful novel ripples and gleams with the unpredictable flow and surge of love, which, like water, can drown us or sustain us. From a war to a hurricane, from an ocean to a flood, Things We Lost to the Water proves itself to be a novel that sustains us.

Author Blurb Charles Yu, National Book Award-winning author of Interior Chinatown
Exquisitely well-written, Things We Lost to the Water is a tender, haunting story of loss, love, family and survival. A moving and powerful debut.

Author Blurb Nguyen Phan Que Mai, author of The Mountains Sing
A devastatingly beautiful debut novel of secrets, deceits, and survivals. An extraordinary tale of a mother and her two sons, torn apart by the storms of Vietnam, to be tested again by the hurricanes of New Orleans. The end has me weeping from joy, sorrow and hope. Eric Nguyen's talent radiates via his urgent prose and his ability to sketch the fine line between loyalty and betrayal, between what brings us together and what breaks us apart. Things We Lost to the Water is a powerful, stunning, and necessary read!

Print Article Publisher's View  

Village de L'Est and Hurricane Katrina

Residents return to Versailles after Hurricane Katrina in A Village Called Versailles When the Vietnamese family depicted in Things We Lost to the Water arrives in New Orleans, they move into an apartment building called Versailles located in the eastern part of the city. The setting is based on the real-life Versailles Arms public housing project in the neighborhood of Village de L'Est, which attracted a large Vietnamese population beginning in 1975 after the fall of Saigon. Many residents were brought to the region via refugee programs run by Catholic charity organizations. The neighborhood's Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, opened in 1985, is the largest Vietnamese American Catholic church in the United States. (A fictionalized version called Our Lady of Saigon appears in the novel.) In research conducted prior to Hurricane Katrina, 80 percent of the Vietnamese population in Village de L'Est identified as Catholic.

When Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005, flooding Village de L'Est, Mary Queen of Vietnam played a pivotal role in ensuring the safety and recovery of the neighborhood's population. With little help coming in from the federal government in the immediate aftermath of the storm, Father Viên Thế Nguyên organized a group of volunteers to maintain contact with residents who had relocated and spearheaded initial rebuilding efforts. It is believed that the priest's work was largely responsible for the return of the Vietnamese population to the area after the flooding.

The residents of Versailles who stayed in the city during the storm were evacuated to the New Orleans Convention Center, where the conditions were abysmal. They were permitted to return to the apartment complex six weeks later to assess the situation, and rather than leave again as authorities ordered, they stayed and began to clean up, returning to Mary Queen of Vietnam each night to sleep on the floor. The church organized food and clothing drives for those in need. In the first week of November, Father Viên began holding mass again. He reached out to Black churches in the neighborhood (the population of Village de L'Est is about 45 percent Black and 45 percent Asian, according to a 2016 census community survey) and invited their parishioners to attend. With seating for about 800, the first post-Katrina mass at Mary Queen of Vietnam was completely full. One Black community leader explained the significance of Father Viên's work: "After a catastrophe, groups can become more insular, more defensive about protecting their community and businesses. But the Vietnamese folks did just the opposite."

Residents and the church also came together to create the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation in 2006, which worked with local businesses to secure loans and government funding for rebuilding and even expansion. In February 2006, Mayor Ray Nagin announced plans to open a landfill for storm debris less than two miles from Versailles. Angry that the mayor was making this unilateral decision without proper environmental oversight, residents staged a protest at the proposed site that led Mayor Nagin to shelve the idea. This and other events involving the Vietnamese community of Versailles are captured in S. Leo Chiang's documentary film A Village Called Versailles.

The Versailles housing project was torn down in 2016, but the church and the development corporation are still vibrantly active in the community. Some of the latter's current projects include sponsoring a farmers' co-op and community health center and advocating for fishermen whose livelihoods are threatened by the effects of climate change.

Residents of Versailles return to the neighborhood after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. From the documentary film A Village Called Versailles by S. Leo Chiang. Photo credit: Mary Queen of Vietnam Church

Filed under People, Eras & Events

By Lisa Butts

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