On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong

My rating: 5 stars

Goodreads rating: 4.05

Publication date:June 4th, 2019

Genre: Contemporary Fiction/LGBTQIA+

Format read: Paperback

Goodreads Summary: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family’s history that began before he was born — a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam — and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Asking questions central to our American moment, immersed as we are in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is as much about the power of telling one’s own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard.

With stunning urgency and grace, Ocean Vuong writes of people caught between disparate worlds, and asks how we heal and rescue one another without forsaking who we are. The question of how to survive, and how to make of it a kind of joy, powers the most important debut novel of many years.

From the first page of “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous”, Ocean Vuong grabbed my heart and shattered it into pieces, and I would not put it back together even if I could. When I tell you I was wholly unprepared for the life-changing nature of this novel, that is an understatement! This book sucker punched me in the gut and I kept going back for more. 

The entire story is written in the form of a letter from Little Dog, our main character, to his mother- a letter she will never be able to read because she never learned to read or speak English. He talks about falling in love with a boy nearby, what being gay and having to hide it took from him, and how watching his friends die from opioid overdose and watching his grandmother die affected him. 

The novel is a semi-autobiographical tale of queer joy and queer heartache, the multitudes of emotions we are capable of as humans, the opioid crisis, and what the intersection of being Vietnamese in the US adds to the experience of being alive.

As someone who has lost many people to opioids, this story resonated with me on a personal level. It was such an accurate description of the feeling of watching people wither away from drugs, especially young people. 

The pain he desperately wanted to hide from, the constant feeling of not belonging, but the beauty of love no matter how difficult are so poetically described through this novel that you cannot help but feel a pool of ache and yearning in your gut. Ache from the horrendous sadness that Vuong details, and yearning for Little Dog to find a place to belong and be visible.

Reading about the pain of being closeted and in love, of watching your family struggle with the pressure of forced assimilation, and watching those you love die has you white knuckled with tears flowing, but also with so much awe and appreciation for the pereserveance of spirit. Little Dog experiences so much loss and grief, but keeps going because he is able to find small pleasures that make life feel worthwhile. Despite the US attempt to force them into assimilation, his family survives because they are not willing to be brought down; they hold tight to their background and culture, and refuse to let go. 

Vuong is a poet and you can see that throughout this novel. The way he uses metaphors and imagery is both haunting and stunningly beautiful. I had to put the book down multiple times just to truly let his words sink in, which sometimes took over a half an hour of sitting silently in my room to work through the emotions it stirred in me. 

I cannot recommend this book enough; it may truly be the best book I have ever been honored to read. I felt so raw and open, and tethered to Ocean throughout the pages of this novel that I don’t know if I can ever feel this way about any other book. I would give up so many things simply to read this book for the first time again. The emotions it elicited in me were so powerful, and I don’t remember a piece of media making me sob quite like this book managed to (and I love any book that manages to make me cry). I will be thinking about this book for many years to come, recommending it to everyone I know, and will be buying all of Vuong’s other books.

Run to your local bookstore to pick this book up. You will not regret it.