Book Review: Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

On Earth We're Briefly GorgeousOn Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was stunned by this book. Immediately, on entering it, it’s clear that the story will be unconventional. A letter to a mother. An autobiography? A poem? The shifts in time and scenes were disorienting, but in a way that I didn’t mind, sort of like getting used to turbulence on a flight.

I’ve read many immigrant stories in my time and stories from a multicultural and Asian North America (which is where I’m from, hence the interest). And then I’ve read a lot of gay fiction (being gay and a gay writer). To combine those two strands of storytelling, and set in the context of a decaying, poor America amidst the opioid epidemic – I was delighted by this original setting.

And I thought his language was really, really beautiful. While Dwight Garner, in his review in the New York Times, found parts of the writing ‘showy’, ‘affected’ and ‘swollen quasi-profundities’ with the effect like pebbles in your shoe, I didn’t mind it, or in fact quite liked it.

I don’t particularly like writing that is too ornate but I don’t mind showy, for example, a favourite book is Michael Ondaatje’s ‘In The Skin of the Lion’, which I didn’t know how showy it was until a friend complained about it (she preferred the subtler and more popular ‘The English Patient’).

But I didn’t really think of it as showy. I found it striking instead, that I often had trouble following a train of thought, or an image, that the lines were reaching for meaning in a way that I didn’t quite understand. But rather than being bothered by it, I could see that Vuong has a different way of looking at the world, and a way that I think is marvelous: filled with beauty among much pain, full of feeling but not sentimental.

‘I considered the stars, the smattering of blue-white phosphorescence and wondered how anyone could call the night dark.’

While the primary relationship in the book purports to be between the narrator, Little Dog, and his mother, I didn’t have a sense of who she was, aside from traumatised and hard-working and poor and pretty crazy. I preferred reading about the narrator’s first love and first lover. It captured the pain and excitement, nervousness and tenderness of a same-sex first love like few others I’ve read. And since first lovers become former lovers, that description of separation, loss and grief is beautifully wrought.

Since I’ve only read three books this year, it doesn’t say much that this is the best book I’ve read this year. Let me just say I think this book is gorgeous, and for longer than a brief moment. Highly recommended.

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