Little Dog writes a letter to his mother, knowing she can't read it, and tries to sort meaning out of the lives of himself, his mother, grandmother, grandfather and first lover. This novel, like himself and his mother before him, is born in the shadow of the Vietnam War but it is an American story of growing strong despite of adversity, finding love in broken places, and finding beauty in all of the brief moment we are here.
It is rare to find prose this beautiful, Madhuri Vijay and perhaps Sarah Perry come close. Vuong has achieved fame as a poet, but this is his first novel. That experience comes through in the craft and structure of 'On Earth'. Every sentence is beautiful. The novel drifts out of the linear going back and forth from his childhood in Hartford, CT as an immigrant and the experiences of his mother and grandmother in Vietnam during and long after the war is over. The third section of the novel has the narrative break down completely into isolated images and memory fragments that nonetheless tell a heartbreaking story.
Vuong does not flinch from the violence in Little Dog's life. His mother, like his father before he left, is sometimes violent. Moments of tenderness are coupled with anger and physical abuse. Still, he loves. His grandmother, Hong (or Rose), is a pillar in his life, compassionate to Little Dog and his mother. I loved her. While still underage Little Dog lies to his mother and gets a job on a tobacco farm where he works with other immigrants and is befriended by the handsome Trevor. Trevor is a product of a cycle of violence, of risky behavior, and yet the two find each other and it is love. Unfortunately growing up in the 21st century means passing through the gauntlet of opioids and their devastating effects, especially in communities like Hartford. We all know someone. Many. This crisis can't be talked about enough.
Little Dog gets his ticket out of his circumstances with hard work and diligence, but not without feeling guilt. Hence, this letter to his mother. This is a haunting, gorgeous book that deserves every bit of praise it has been receiving. Get it, read it, share it (give it to the library after, they likely need the help and books like this are still often the first to be cut out of slim buying budgets). 'On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous', on sale this Tuesday in downtown bookshops across the country.