Reviews for On Earth Were Briefly Gorgeous: A Novel

by Ocean Vuong

Library Journal
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DEBUT 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 -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. [See Prepub Alert, 12/3/18.]-Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon, Washington, DC Copyright 2019. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Kirkus
Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

A young man writes a letter to his illiterate mother in an attempt to make sense of his traumatic beginnings.When Little Dog is a child growing up in Hartford, he is asked to make a family tree. Where other children draw full green branches full of relatives, Little Dog's branches are bare, with just five names. Born in Vietnam, Little Dog now lives with his abusiveand abusedmother and his schizophrenic grandmother. The Vietnam War casts a long shadow on his life: His mother is the child of an anonymous American soldierhis grandmother survived as a sex worker during the conflict. Without siblings, without a father, Little Dog's loneliness is exacerbated by his otherness: He is small, poor, Asian, and queer. Much of the novel recounts his first love affair as a teen, with a "redneck" from the white part of town, as he confesses to his mother how this doomed relationship is akin to his violent childhood. In telling the stories of those who exist in the margins, Little Dog says, "I never wanted to build a body of work,' but to preserve these, our bodies, breathing and unaccounted for, inside the work." Vuong has written one of the most lauded poetry debuts in recent memory (Night Sky with Exit Wounds, 2016), and his first foray into fiction is poetic in the deepest sensenot merely on the level of language, but in its structure and its intelligence, moving associationally from memory to memory, quoting Barthes, then rapper 50 Cent. The result is an uncategorizable hybrid of what reads like memoir, bildungsroman, and book-length poem. More important than labels, though, is the novel's earnest and open-hearted belief in the necessity of stories and language for our survival.A raw and incandescently written foray into fiction by one of our most gifted poets. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

This first novel by poet Vuong (Night Sky with Exit Wounds, 2016) is narrated by Little Dog, a Vietnamese refugee who grew up in Hartford with his mother and his maternal grandmother, Lan. A writer now, he addresses his story as a letter to his mother, who cannot read, ""to tell you everything you'll never know."" He recalls her painful attempts to toughen him and his simultaneous rage for all that frays her work, memories, difficulty communicating. At 14 he gets a job cutting tobacco, and there meets Trevor. Two years older, Trevor works to escape his alcoholic father and makes Little Dog feel ""seen I who had seldom been seen by anyone."" Their covert love blooms brilliantly as Trevor, battling his own demons, handles Little Dog with bewildering warmth. This plot line is its own speeding train, while Little Dog's letter also reveals the family's inextricable legacy from the Vietnam War. In Vuong's acrobatic storytelling, Lan's traumatic wartime tale unspools in a spiraling dive, and a portrait of Trevor emerges in the snapshots of a 10-page prose poem. Casting a truly literary spell, Vuong's tale of language and origin, beauty and the power of story, is an enrapturing first novel.--Annie Bostrom Copyright 2019 Booklist


Publishers Weekly
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Poet Vuong's frank first novel (after Night Sky with Exit Wounds) takes the form of a letter from a man to his illiterate mother in which 28-year-old Little Dog, a writer who's left the impoverished Hartford, Conn., of his youth for New York City, retraces his coming of age. His childhood is marked by abuse from his overworked mother, as well as the traumas he's inherited from his mother's and grandmother's experiences during the Vietnam War. Having left Vietnam with them as a young boy, and after the incarceration of his father, Little Dog's attempts to assimilate include contending with language barriers and the banal cruelty of the supposedly well-intentioned. He must also adapt to the world as a gay man and as a writer-the novel's beating heart rests in Little Dog's first, doomed love affair with another teenage boy, and in his attempts to describe what being a writer truly is. Vuong's prose shines in the intimate scenes between the young men, but sometimes the lyricism has a straining, vague quality ("They say nothing lasts forever but they're just scared it will last longer than they will love it"; "But the thing about forever is you can't take it back"). Nevertheless, this is a haunting meditation on loss, love, and the limits of human connection. (June) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

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