Vuong’s first novel is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read and that was enough for me to pick up this book. Add to this the author’s clear love of language and rhythm meant that I was hooked from the outset.
The letter is written by Little Dog and journeys through various places including his hometown,
“... Hartford, where fathers were phantoms, dipping in and out of their children’s lives, like [Little Dog’s] own father. Where grandmothers, abuelas, abas, nanas, babas, and bà ngoạis were kings, crowned with nothing but salvaged and improvised pride and the stubborn testament of their tongues as they waited on creaking knees and bloated feet outside Social Services for heat and oil assistance smelling of drugstore perfume and peppermint hard candies, their brown oversized Goodwill coats dusted with fresh snow as they huddled, steaming down the winter block—their sons and daughters at work or in jail or overdosed or just gone, hitching cross-country on Greyhounds with dreams of kicking the habit, starting anew, but then ghosting into family legends.”
As we learn about Little Dog’s life growing up with his mother and grandmother and his relationship with a fellow workhand (Trevor), the novel illuminates Vietnamese culture, racial prejudice and bullying through tender, tragic, and brutal events always beautifully described. Though there were one or two passages that I definitely would not have penned to my own mother.
The book was also enlightening on a few subjects, including the drug, Oxycontin, and Tiger Woods, and I began asking myself what I’d learn each time I opened the cover.
I’d heard of Vuong through his awarding-winning debut poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, and wanted to see how well he would make the transition to novel. I found his writing morphed into a more poetic form three-quarters through which allowed me to drift from the story, but the prose returned to a more standard format soon enough, leading into a neat and satisfying conclusion.
This letter could be seen as a means of self-healing, however the reason why Little Dog addressed it to an illiterate person is revealed at the end and makes the book worth reading for that alone.
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is available to buy here: https://agreatread.co.uk/on-earth-were-briefly-gorgeous-9781787331501/
Night Sky With Exit Wounds is available to buy here: https://agreatread.co.uk/night-sky-with-exit-wounds-9781911214519/