Summary and book reviews of Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen

Things We Lost to the Water

by Eric Nguyen

Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen X
Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen
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  • Published:
    May 2021, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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About this Book

Book Summary

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 ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

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...continued

Full Review Members Only (753 words).

(Reviewed by Lisa Butts).

Media Reviews

BuzzFeed
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]aptivating...an 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!

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Beyond the Book

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 ...

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