Little Dog, a Vietnamese-American in his late twenties, grows up with his mother Rose, who barely understands English, in Hartford, Connecticut. Together, they navigate through their war-torn past, and explore what it means to live and exist in a majority white America. Written as an extended letter from Little Dog to his mother, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a moving reflection upon family, belonging, and identity.
The novel, which mirrors Vuong’s own story as an immigrant to the United States, unfolds itself through a non-linear, fragmented narrative structure, with details of his family’s lives revealed through vignettes. From young, Little Dog learns how to read and write in English and attempts to teach his mother the language. Rose, however, struggles with it and is ashamed of her failure. In sharp contrast to her son — who later becomes a celebrated literary writer — she spends her time colouring into colouring books instead, favouring expression through image rather than speech. But even with Little Dog’s best efforts to learn the language of his new country, he finds himself taunted and bullied as a child, unable to defend himself. This power imbalance is everywhere: he watches how his mother, working as a manicurist in a nail salon, is forced to use the word sorry incessantly when interacting with her customers — to “[lower] oneself so that the client feels right, superior, and charitable” — all for the ultimate goal of earning a tip. In every way, his mother is made to feel lowered — physically, verbally, and by virtue of her ethnicity — to her demeaning position in a country where she she is made to feel that she does not belong.
The spectre of war looms over Little Dog and his family as well. Little Dog recounts how his grandmother married a white soldier from America during the Vietnam War and gave birth to Rose. We also learn that Rose suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder: when five-year-old Little Dog plays soldier and scares his mother as a prank, she is evidently still haunted by the war that lives inside her — a war that, Little Dog learns, “never leaves” once it enters you. It is perhaps for this reason that Rose is an abusive mother, adding to the conflict in a mother-son relationship that is already fraught with tension . At the heart of the novel, therefore, is Little Dog’s attempt to navigate this relationship. Although Rose is unable to read or speak English, the act of writing to her is what provides Little Dog with the catharsis that brings him closer to understanding his family’s past — one that is intertwined with the history of war and violence in Vietnam.
The story takes a turn when, working in a tobacco field at the age of fourteen, Little Dog meets a young white boy Trevor. Despite their different backgrounds, the two develop a connection and begin a romantic relationship. Little Dog finds himself seen, for the first time, as a person, by someone from a group that he was never allowed within. Through his newfound romance, Little Dog gains a fleeting sense of freedom, the momentary lifting of a cage that he has been trapped in, even though he knows that freedom is but an illusion. Adapting a brutally poignant image from Chinese-American poet Bei Dao, he reminds us that freedom is merely “the distance between the hunter and the prey”.
The emotional clarity of Vuong’s lyrical prose is the most memorable quality of this debut novel, a testament to his poetic craft. Prior to this, he has written three collections of poetry; his latest collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, which mainly focuses on the Vietnam War, won the T.S Eliot Prize in 2017. There are moments in this novel, however — particularly in the second half — when Vuong’s metaphorical writing becomes excessive. Other reviewers have criticised Vuong for “showy, affected writing”, and for some readers, they may find that his style compromises on the clarity of plot and narrative structure. Nonetheless, it is worth the time to slow down and let the prose wash over you, as it is by working through the peaks and troughs of Little Dog’s emotional undercurrents that the narrative progresses.
Throughout much of the novel, Little Dog believes that “to speak in our mother tongue is to speak only partially in Vietnamese, but entirely in war”. This is not a novel that provides a clear resolution — or a simple ‘moral of the story’, so to speak — but one of the sharpest and most defiant moments comes near the end, when Little Dog realises that his family was not born from war, but from beauty. And there are indeed moments of beauty that shine through, amidst all the pain and struggle.