Despite my finishing four books in December, I somehow haven’t shared a ‘Reactions to’ post since my review of Ling Ma’s Severance back in the beginning of November. One of the books I read at the end of 2020 is On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by the poet and now novelist, Ocean Vuong. I’m comfortable reading Vuong’s poems as I’ve been a fan for several years, but the prose he crafted in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is somehow even more inspiring. The novel is about a boy named Little Dog (a worthless name given so that the spirits might pass over and not disturb him) and his life with his traumatized and often abusive mother Rose as well as his grandmother Lan who has schizophrenia. Little Dog’s mother can’t read or write as she, her sister Mai, and mother Lan sought refuge in the Philippines during the Vietnam War and found themselves in Hartford, Connecticut many years later. The novel is Little Dog’s story he writes as a letter for his mother so she may know what happened to him throughout his life and so he can connect his experiences with that of his mother and grandmother. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is like a genealogical tale and story of survival coupled with a coming of age love story between Little Dog and a white boy named Trevor he meets while working on a tobacco field (this is one of my favorite parts of the book: “There were colors, Ma. Yes, there were colors I felt when I was with him. Not words—but shades, penumbras,” (106).) The trauma Lan and Rose survived and Little Dog’s own heartbreaking narrative don’t lead to a typical happy ending, but rather one showing the importance of family and recognition of how damaging war, toxic masculinity, imperialism, and racism can be on a family.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is extremely difficult to read at different points because of the historical traumas Lan and Rose suffered through combined with personal pain they hid from each other and Little Dog’s often devastating coming of age tales. I loved how Vuong respectfully shared the lives of each of the three protagonists and how their existences affected the others. And while the moments Little Dog spent loving Trevor grabbed my heart (“He loves me, he loves me not, we are taught to say, as we tear the flower away from its flowerness. To arrive at love, then, is to arrive through obliteration. Eviscerate me, we mean to say, and I’ll tell you the truth,” (119).), the story is ultimately about family and we help each other survive. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is one of the best books I read in 2020 (more of those to come) and I highly recommend it!