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BookBrowse Reviews On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

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On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

by Ocean Vuong

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong X
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
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  • Published:
    Jun 2019, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rachel Hullett
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An intimate portrait of the relationship between mother and son that expertly navigates the indelible effect of war on one Vietnamese American family.

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, the bold and bracing debut novel by acclaimed poet Ocean Vuong, centers on Little Dog, the son of a Vietnamese immigrant mother and an absent father. Raised in present-day Hartford in a predominantly white community, Little Dog struggles from an early age to both assimilate with his peers and to honor his Vietnamese heritage, but here Vuong deviates from the standard immigration story blueprint in favor of something more darkly sensual and internal. As the story unfolds, the reader comes to understand that the novel is an elaborate letter written from Little Dog to his mother, though she will never read it, as she is illiterate: the story he tells her is consequently private and unsparing. "The impossibility of you reading this makes my telling it possible," Little Dog confesses.

Vuong first demonstrated his linguistic prowess in his lyrical poetry collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds, and now he's extended this talent effortlessly to prose. The writing itself is the first thing that will strike most readers about this book: crafted in a way that feels authentic and raw rather than labored, Vuong's poetic style is a marvel.

"The music in his hands dripping milk, he opens the front door. It is summer. The strays beyond the railroad are barking, which means something, a rabbit or possum, has just slipped out of its life and into the world. The piano notes seep through the boy's chest as he makes his way to the backyard. Because something in him knew she'd be there. That she was waiting. Because that's what mothers do. They wait. They stand still until their children belong to someone else."

The relationship between mother and son is the novel's central conceit, but from there Little Dog's story spirals outward, as Vuong deftly navigates themes of national identity, sexuality, shame, masculinity, violence and social class. In the novel's second act, the focus shifts from Little Dog's family to his first love, a local farm boy named Trevor who slowly becomes incapacitated by an opioid addiction. The relationship between Little Dog and Trevor is fraught, fragile; Little Dog understands that he is gay but Trevor rejects this label, which ultimately forms a chasm between them.

The novel's structure, though it's roughly linear (part 1 is childhood; part 2 is adolescence; part 3 is adulthood), weaves elements of Little Dog's family history into the narrative, including some jarring but necessary passages where Little Dog imagines scenes from the Vietnam War from his grandmother's perspective, which he's pieced together from the stories she's told him. The family's collective PTSD from the war and the anxieties of a queer American teenager all exist within the same space and tell a story that's complex and remarkable in its singularity.

Both an examination of the cultural scars that span generations, and an exacting distillation of the tension between the stories inside us and our inability to share them, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is an accomplished and unforgettable debut. This novel is such a convincing and intimate snapshot that it's at times difficult to remember that what you're reading is fiction and not memoir, though it's of course possible that Vuong's own life as a gay Vietnamese American immigrant informed details of Little Dog's. But even without knowing where exactly Vuong decided to draw the line between fact and fiction, the tender relationships between Little Dog and his mother, grandmother, and Trevor, are all so complex, so recognizable, that the story's verisimilitude is undeniable, as is the author's linguistic mastery.

Reviewed by Rachel Hullett

This review is from the On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous. It first ran in the June 19, 2019 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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