Ocean Vuong has decided to follow up his 2017 TS Eliot prize-winning debut collection of poetry, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, with a novel. This autobiographical work focuses on his childhood, which has the main character exploring his relationship with his mother to whom the narrative is addressed in the form of a letter. Vuong’s gift for language rings clearly throughout as his writing is full of vivid images and episodic snapshots of memory that are clear and powerful. This is obviously a novel written by a poet. In fact, it was the deliciously poetic title that first drew me to this work. Having said that, there is enough plot narrative in his tale of the boy known as “Little Dog” to ensure that this works very well as a novel.
Little Dog’s mother is a manicurist who works long hours and can erupt in explosions of violence. His grandmother, Lan, far more uprooted from her Vietnamese life than the other characters, is ailing and is very much seen in terms of the damage inflicted on her via years of conflict, becoming increasingly distant to her family, but whose strength of spirit is evident in Little Dog’s memories. Perhaps more than the relationship between mother and son, it is with the grandmother and grandson that the heart of this novel really lies.
The bullied, abused Little Dog has to grapple with his sexuality in a tough world of prescription drug addiction and struggling to get by. Alongside the narrative it is the visual images conjured continually by Vuong’s writing which brings this debut to life. Recurring images including butterflies migrating long distances and herding buffaloes plunging off a cliff top feel very appropriate for the fragility, tenacity and bewilderment of these characters’ situations.
This work is less plot-driven than I would normally recommend but its sensitivity and power and linguistic richness would ensure a valuable reading experience.
Phil Ramage 4/4
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
Jonathan Cape 9781787331501 hbk Jun 2019