Review: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

“Even if color is nothing but what the light reveals, that nothing has laws, and a boy on a pink bike must learn, above all else, the law of gravity.” – Ocean Vuong


On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
242 pages
Genre: Fiction 
Published by Penguin Press, 2019
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Re-readability: I might come back to this one someday. 
Reviewed by Indiana 
Spoilers included

Don’t let its size or page count fool you, this epistolary-style story is weighty. The Vietnamese American narrator writes a letter to his illiterate mother, who will most likely never read it. 

Told in prose more lyrical than most contemporary songs, the novel tells of a family fractured by trauma, bigotry, mental illness and violence.  Vuong writes “You’re a mother, Ma. You’re also a monster. But so am I—which is why I can’t turn away from you.” Growing up, the narrator’s mother, who is mentally ill, often hit him for leaving his toys out or for saying what she considered the wrong thing. Violence was a part of her life, as she was abused by her former partner, and it in turn became a part of his. 

The narrator, who is nicknamed Little Dog, eventually finds happiness in his first relationship with a boy named Trevor. The book delves into their romance as well as some of their drug-induced escapades. Eventually, the relationship ends in tragedy, one all too familiar with the narrator as his friends are dying of overdoses. 

Another bright spot or character in the novel is Lan, his grandmother. She is mentally ill as well, with something akin to schizophrenia, she is often his comforter when his mom can’t be there, emotionally or physically. Lan’s backstory comes through the narrative the clearest, perhaps because she is a storyteller. 

As Little Dog plucks the “snow” or white hair from Lan’s scalp, she tells him stories of her life. When she was 17, she left an arranged marriage, seeking help from her mother, only to be rejected and sent away. She eventually becomes a sex worker for American GIs and has a child with one, though it’s not the Virginian farmer that Little Dog grows up thinking is his grandfather. 

This coming-of-age and coming-out story reads more like a poem than a narrative at times, and, as the author is also a poet, it makes sense. At the end, I wanted to know more about the details of the narrator’s life and of his mother’s. I also found the jarring scenes of animals dying or in one case, being eaten alive, difficult to stomach. They connected with the plot and character development, but they were still tough to get through. 

Anyone else read this one?

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