On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
Published by Penguin Press on June 4th, 2019
“Because the sunset, like survival, exists only on the verge of its own disappearing. To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted.”
My aunt recommended this book to me and even gifted me the ebook. But I loved it so much that I went out and bought my own physical copy! I just knew I needed it on my shelf because I wanted to be able to let people borrow it.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who can’t 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 an opening into parts of his life his mother has never known.
Where do I begin with this review?
This is a stunning piece of work. The only way to describe how Vuong writes is exquisite.
There are so many sentences I want to memorize and be able to recite them off the top of my head. Sadly, I have terrible memory. But I have highlighted them in my book to come back to in the future. The whole book reads as an elegant collection of poems.
There are so many lines in this book that are rich in meaning. Sometimes, I had to put the book down to fully appreciate and understand what I had just read. This is such an intimate novel that I felt like I was almost intruding being able to read it. It felt like I shouldn’t be privy to such personal matters. Side note: I feel like this when I listen to Taylor Swift’s song, Afterglow.
Most of this book focuses on the relationship between a mother and a son. Two people caught between worlds and going on a journey to understand how to heal and rescue one another while coming to terms with who they are as people.
I had to keep reminding myself that this was a work of fiction. The way Vuong captures each moment, memory, or feeling is so compelling because of how honest it is. It really felt like even though he was writing Little Dog’s story, it read like he was writing a memoir.
For such a short book, Vuong certainly doesn’t waste any time touching upon everything from the Vietnam War to Tiger Woods to Little Dog’s first romance with a white boy.
This book covers heavy subject matter. Everything from race, gender, sexuality, masculinity, trauma, and language is discussed with such frankness.
I think I was most affected by Vuong’s discussion about language and literacy. There’s a repeated idea where Little Dog describes to his mother what being a writer means or what it means to be able to write. And I felt moved whenever he wrote about the power of individual words and phrases.
The way On Earth is written won’t work for everyone. It doesn’t follow a normal narrative structure. It jumps around in time and the story is told through a series of snippets or moments.
Even though I loved this book, I did knock off half a bubble tea because while I’ve never read anything like this, I did wish that I got a better sense of where the story was going. I wanted more from the story and the ending.
If you love philosophical reads about humanity, language, and facing hardship during formative years, I’d highly recommend this. I’m so happy that I ended 2019 by reading such an incredible piece of work!