On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Publisher: Vintage
Publication Date:
01/09/2020
Length: 246 pages
Genre:
Literary Fiction

CW: homophobia

Blackwells.co.uk

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family’s history that began before he was born — a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam — and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Asking questions central to our American moment, immersed as we are in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is as much about the power of telling one’s own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard.

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Review

I saw that this novel was ‘book of the month’ in October on quite a lot of bookshop websites so I knew that I couldn’t go far wrong with this pick! Especially with such an intriguing description. The novel is short and I pretty much devoured it in one sitting, I put it down once and found that I couldn’t stop thinking about it and had to pick it back up!

As the description suggests, this entire novel is written as a long letter from the protagonist, Little Dog, to his mother who can’t read. It’s through this narrative technique that we can’t help but feel very close to the protagonist and quickly form a bond with him. Whilst we know that the letter is being written to his mother, there are a lot of instances where we can forget this and feel as though he is directly addressing us. 

The fact that Little Dog begins the novel saying that he knows his mother will never read the letter, either because she can’t read English or because he will never give it to her, really allows for an open and honest dialogue. The way that Little Dog recounts both his memories as well as his grandmother’s and mother’s is very raw and he isn’t afraid to hide or sugar coat anything. This is particularly important and has a huge impact due to the topics that the novel covers, from the horrific Vietnam war, to how they are treated living in the US to how Little Dog learns to deal with masculine ideals and his sexuality. 

It wasn’t until after I read the novel that I discovered that Vuong is a poet, however I wasn’t surprised at all when I found out. The novel has a beautiful, lyrical, quality to it at times. One part of the novel particularly stands out as the syntax changes completely and it feels like a poem. It’s not often that I will feel compelled to read aloud when reading, but this part of the novel did just that. It just seemed like it would be fun and have more of an impact doing it that way.

I can easily see how this novel was so many bookshops’ pick of the month. Not only is this a stunningly written novel, but it also tackles many topics that are important to discuss. I highly recommend that you pick this one up, if you haven’t done so already!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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