Ocean Vuong is a poet, and, if, as the reader, you did not know this upon opening the cover of this novel, you will quickly realise it. His style of writing is magically poetic, at times it feels like his sentences are flowing and you won’t notice until you are pulled up short by a full stop.
Warning, if you are looking for a happy novel put this down straight away. You will be devastated in almost no time at all, but if you are looking for a powerful, emotional and at times brutally beautiful novel then this may be the book for you.
The novel is about the life of Little Dog. A name chosen for the protagonist by his grandmother. However, it is not a derogatory name, rather a blessing,
“A child, often the smallest or weakest of the flock, as I was, is named after the most despicable things: demon, ghost child, pig snout, monkey-born, buffalo head, bastard- Little Dog being the more tender one. Because evil spirits, roaming the land for healthy, beautiful children, would hear the name of something hideous and ghastly being called in for supper and pass over the house, sparing the child.
To love something, then, is to name it after something so worthless it might be left untouched-and alive. A name, thin as air, can also be a shield. A Little Dog shield”.
The narrative takes the format of a letter written by a son to a mother. Little Dog is writing to his mother recalling anecdotes and moments of his history that are important to him and, he believes to his mother. Some of these anecdotes are sad, painful memories, some are funny and comical, and they all are important enough for the son to remember and record for his mother. And yet the mother cannot read. The writing cathartic for the son. He is a writer with a degree in English, and this letter is perhaps the best way to exercise his demons.
The Vietnam war may be over, but is it truly ever over for those who lived through it? Those who existed in the middle of it, surrounded by horror and cruelty.
We find out quite quickly that Little Dog was physically abused by his mother. Physical abuse which perhaps originates back to the war in Vietnam and through time flowed through the family like a river of violence. Little Dog calling his mother a monster, yet not blaming her, stating that PTSD was perhaps the cause of the abuse, that or the abuse that she received from her husband.
Not only violence stemmed from the war Little Dog’s grandmother’s schizophrenia, got decidedly worse after the war. Emotionally the war still rages on in her mind.
Little Dog does not fit into this new world that the family has entered. Not only from an ethnic point of view but from the point of his sexuality as well. Little Dog is gay and falls in love with Trevor. Trevor is the grandson of the man who Little Dog works for in the summer. Trevor is addicted to opioids, and Vuong gives us a little on the history of how America spiralled down into a generational addiction. Both boys are experimenting with their sexuality but for Little Dog this love is real, whereas for Trevor, experimental is just that. In fact, Trevor starts to loath himself for being a “faggot”. Trevor sees no future in this relationship and often questions Little Dog, asking him if he will always be gay, or grow out of it, as Trevor believes he will.
There is a deep sense of sadness with this novel, and there never seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel with this narrative, rather, one sad story is replaced by another equally, or sometimes, greater, melancholic or cruel one. However, having said that, there is a beauty to this sadness, perhaps it is the writing, but there is a definite poetic beauty flowing through this book. Rarely do I prefer a book for its writing style rather than the narrative or characters, but this is one of those rarities. For me the high rating comes from, although the narrative is interesting, the writing style. 4.5 Stars.
Ocean Vuong is the author of the debut novel, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, out from Penguin Press (2019) and forthcoming in 15 other languages worldwide. He is also the author of the critically acclaimed poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, a New York Times Top 10 Book of 2016, winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Whiting Award, the Thom Gunn Award, and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. A Ruth Lilly fellow from the Poetry Foundation, his honors include fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, The Elizabeth George Foundation, The Academy of American Poets, and the Pushcart Prize.
Vuong's writings have been featured in The Atlantic, Harpers, The Nation, New Republic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Village Voice, and American Poetry Review, which awarded him the Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets. Selected by Foreign Policy magazine as a 2016 100 Leading Global Thinker, alongside Hillary Clinton, Ban Ki-Moon and Justin Trudeau, Ocean was also named by BuzzFeed Books as one of “32 Essential Asian American Writers” and has been profiled on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” PBS NewsHour, Teen Vogue, VICE, The Fantastic Man, and The New Yorker.
Born in Saigon, Vietnam, he lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he serves as an Assistant Professor in the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at Umass-Amherst.
There is a great video of Ocean reading from his novel at the Strand Bookshop the day after it was released - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjTiLodYG3Y