‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ (with a bit of luck)
Review of TS Eliot Prize winner Ocean Vuong's elliptical, ambitious and poetic debut novel
Ocean Vuong certainly arrived with a splash. Last year the 30-year-old became the youngest ever winner of the TS Eliot Prize with his first poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, though by then he was already the subject of countless newspaper and magazine profiles. It wasn’t his haunting poems but the biography behind them that caught the attention of the world’s press. The photo on Night Sky’s cover offered a hint at the story: Vuong as a baby in a refugee camp, caught between the Vietnam of his birth and another life in America.
If you noticed the fuss and thought “I’ll wait for the memoir”, hoping for something more straightforwardly digestible, well, you might have to hold on for the movie. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Vuong’s debut novel, is just as elliptical, ambitious and – yes – poetic as its predecessor.
The book hovers somewhere between fiction, autobiography and prose-poem. Its young protagonist, known as Little Dog, is born in Vietnam and raised in Hartford, Connecticut, by his mother, Rose, who works in a nail parlour. Her violent husband has long since disappeared. Little Dog’s Vietnamese grandmother, who also shares their small flat, captures the boy’s imagination with stories of her wartime romance with his grandfather, a US soldier. The novel skips between pivotal moments in Little Dog’s life: we see him fall in love and, with some difficulty, come out to his mother as gay. The first in his family to read or write, he worries he has “squandered it on a degree in English”, but later finds validation as a successful poet. All this is also true of Vuong...