Before I opened the first pages, I had no idea what this novel was about, only that the debut novel by poet Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Penguin Random House 2019) had received rave reviews from people like Max Porter, Celeste Ng and Marlon James, along with recommendations from numerous personal friends.
This is a beautiful novel written in the form of a love letter from a son to his mother, in language poetic, literary and transcendent. It is a tender story about a romantic and conflicted first experience of desire. It is a tale of intergenerational trauma and mental illness. It is about butterflies and buffaloes, desire, shame, belonging, family, tradition and farming. It’s about love and memory and drugs; death, grief and fear; rejection, prejudice, racism and poverty. It’s about monkeys and moose; cows and crickets and dogs. It’s about friendship and regret and joy and hope. It is about addiction, history, honesty, forgiveness, compassion and grace. It is about lava and golf and sliding doors. It is about the power to heal and to rescue. It is a letter written by a man whose heritage is the brutal circumstances of war in Vietnam, written to a woman who cannot read. It’s about violence and silence. It’s a child’s plea, an adolescent’s vulnerability; an adult’s reckoning. This is a book that demonstrates the power of words.