On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is one of the last novels I read in 2021, and I am so glad that I did because it ended the years’ worth of reading on a high. This debut novel by Ocean Vuong is incredible – it’s luminous, shattering and urgent. But more than anything, this novel is utterly raw. That is how powerful this story is and the emotions in it, and that is exactly how you feel after reading it.
Brilliant, heartbreaking and highly original, Ocean Vuong’s debut novel is a shattering portrait of a family, and a testament to the redemptive power of storytelling.
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.
You can tell from reading it that Vuong is a poet. The way he write and structures this book is exquisite, but if poetry isn’t your thing then it’ll probably be a little hard to follow. I’m a huge fan of poetry, so that never really bothered me. It made for a very interesting and unique read.
But because of his poetry background, Vuong examines whether putting words to one’s experience can bridge wounds that span generations, and this story makes us question whether it’s ever possible to be truly heard by those we love most.
He writes about the complicated relationship between a mother and son with real tenderness, with compelling honesty, and the intimacy of the novel as a letter between a son and mother was poignant.
But even in the middle of all of that beautiful writing, there are very important and vital messages weaved through the themes of this book, including: war, trauma and abuse; drugs and addiction; gender and sexuality; race and racism; language and storytelling; and memory.
These are very strong and complex issues, and he tackles them in such an incredible way, incorporating them all into one story. It makes it the best story for anyone in the world who’s struggling because they feel the least bit different.
Another thing that’s so powerful about On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is how Vuong uses butterflies to symbolise life’s journey and Little Dog’s journey.
Butterflies do not know where they are going – the journey is imprinted in their subconscious. In much the same way, butterflies have to trust their instincts and those who came before them and overcome hardships on a seemingly never-ending journey.
Little Dog, like much of the rest of us, is doing the same thing as he progresses through his life.
But the most poignant thing for me, is the message Vuong tells in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and I feel like it comes from the title.
It’s the idea that we all have this fleeting moment on earth, and in that moment there is pain and suffering, but there is also incredible joy – in the small things, of being alive, of having love, of finding the good that worth rooting for, and having something authentic.
In the middle-to-end part of the novel, Vuong writes:
“All this time I told myself we were born from war-but I was wrong Ma. We were born from beauty. Let no one mistake us for the fruit of violence-but that the violence, having passed through the fruit, failed to spoil it.”– Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
It’s such a beautiful message about both the joy and pain in life that shows that terrible things happen in life and there’s no escaping that – and happiness in the face of all of that, that’s not the goal.
Feeling the horrible, and knowing that you’re not going to die from those feelings, that’s the goal.
And knowing, evening amongst the horrible, that there are so many good, things if we open ourselves to see the beauty, the grace, and miracles that surround us every day.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous really is an incredibly unique book – I’ve honestly never read anything like it, and it’s one of the most lyrical narratives I have ever happened across.
So, if you’re looking for something a little different to sweep you away into another world and blow you away all your expectations, then this novel is for you.