05 September 2019, The Tablet

Darkness and light


 

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
OCEAN VUONG
(JONATHAN CAPE, 256 PP, £12.99)
tablet bookshop price £11.69 • tel 020 7799 4064

This phosphorescent debut novel is about a traumatised Vietnamese family trying to survive, trapped in urban, American poverty. The loosely structured tale is narrated in the form of a memoir to his mother by Little Dog, the son of Rose and grandson of Lily, Vietnamese immigrants, neither of whom can speak much English.

Little Dog – whose life closely resembles that of the author, the winner the 2017 T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry – wants almost to apolo­gise to his Ma for the way things have turned out: the harshness of their lives; the ugliness and racism of America; and the disappointment of his gayness. 

For Grandma Lily, lost in a country which is utterly alien, the Vietnam War overshadows everything. She can do one thing, though: she can tell stories, her story, with nothing missed out. This is her gift, and eventually it gives Little Dog a way out.

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