Book Review: On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous


Book cover with autumnal leaves.

This 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. It tells of Vietnam, of the lasting impact of war, and of his family's struggle to forge a new future. And it serves as a doorway into parts of Little Dog's life his mother has never known - episodes of bewilderment, fear and passion - all the while moving closer to an unforgettable revelation.

I hated this book. It is beautifully written. Every sentence drips with poetry. The rhythm of the chapters is sublime - taking the reader on a perfectly crafted emotional journey. The characters are perfectly realised and speak with such force and power that it can be overwhelming.

It is everything a modern novel should be.

And yet I hated it.

It falls squarely in the category of "misery memoir". You know those books with a filthy urchin on the cover and a title like "Mummy, no! One child's brave experience of survival." Only this is literature.

I just don't get why someone would choose to vicariously experience such trauma. It feels grimly voyeuristic and graphically exposing. I felt grubby from peering in to someone else's tragedy - no matter how astonishing the prose is.

There is no doubt that this is a masterpiece. I think I'm just the wrong audience for it.

Verdict
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One thought on “Book Review: On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous”

  1. I felt very much the same for quite a lot of the parts I have so far read. Bits of it I really liked, because they spoke to me — Little Dog's first queer experiences, for example — but a lot of it felt really uncomfortably misery-porn without feeling I was learning a huge amount from it (except a bit more context of wartime Vietnam). And it was also pretty strange reading something that felt like it was autobiographical but also a roman à clef, y'know?

    Interesting and bits of it are great — and Ocean Vuong is clearly an exceptional writer — but I DNF'd about halfway through.

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