On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous: Book Review

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Ocean Vuong’s first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is as beautiful as its title is evocative. It’s a painful coming of age story that is written about surviving the results of a trauma. The plot takes the figure of a young writer that writes to his illiterate mother. 

The son knows that it’s highly unlikely that his mother- with her limited grasp of the English language- will even read his confessional. The book is a lot more about articulating and processing hard-to-endure memories than it is about characters in direct communication with each other. He tries to ‘break free’ by doing the only thing he knows- writing.
The result is a narrative that sheds some light on a fractured family pull apart by harrowing life experiences. These include those of the boys mother and his grandmother in Vietnam mingled with those of the boy raised in Hartford, Cord. He endured abuse from his mentally ill (but loving) mother and bullied by schoolmates. 
Little Dog, the narrator, finally finds some reprieve in a love affair that turns into a tragic relationship involving an American teenager that has been hit hard by drugs. However, his true salvation comes through writing and reading that leads him to an understanding on the history of his family. The best way to read this book is in small doses so you can absorbs the hard blows one event at a time. Luckily, the language isn’t hard to understand.

After one of his mother’s attacks, Little Dog asks what we mean when we say one is a survivor. He then goes on to recount the instances of his mother’s abuse. There’s the time he was 13 and couldn’t take it so he asked her to stop, the time she used her fists, and the time she hit him with a gallon of milk. He goes on to remind his mother that she is a mother but she’s also a monster. He then says he’s the same thing which is why he can’t make himself turn from her.
His grandmother turned into his protector even though she’s schizophrenic. At 10, when he tried to run away from his mother, his grandma tells him that his mother loves him even though she’s sick like her. His grandmother tells him stories in exchange for removing white hair from her head or as she calls them, ‘slow flakes’. He then learns that his name is Little Dog because when one loves something, they name it after something worthless so that no one touches it. 

His grandmother continues to narrate the story of how at 17, she had to leave an arranged marriage and was rejected by her mother. In the end, she had to turn to prostituting herself for American GIs. Vuong’s beautiful language is evident as he writes about freedom, survival, and beauty. The book is definitely a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the struggles of a young, gay man surrounded by people suffering from mental illnesses.

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