On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong [in Library Journal]
The cover calls this a novel, but the autobiographical overlaps are many: a gay Vietnamese American poet, an October birth outside Saigon, an other-side-of-the-world escape, a biracial single mother, a Hartford, CT, upbringing, a New York City education. In his prose debut, T.S. Eliot-prized, Whiting-awarded Ocean Vuong mines his memories, his traumas, his triumphs to create an epistolary masterpiece addressed to his mother – who can’t read.
Whispered a name at birth meaning “Patriotic Leader of the Nation,” he’s instead called “Little Dog,” because “[t]o love something … is to name it after something so worthless it might be left untouched – and alive.” Escaping Vietnam, Little Dog grows up with his grandmother’s stories of survival, of what she did to feed one daughter, then another. In a house full of damaged women, he replays his mother’s monstrous abuses, her unrelenting sacrifices: “parents suffering from PTSD are more likely to hit their children.” And yet, “[p]erhaps to lay hands on your child is to prepare him for war.”
In his precarious journey to manhood, race, poverty, mental illness, isolation, sexuality, first love, and death prove to be perilous challenges. Writing will save his life.
Verdict: Fearless, revelatory, extraordinary; an essential acquisition for every library.
Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, March 1, 2019
Readers: Young Adult, Adult