Book Review: ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ by Ocean Vuong

A Poetic Odyssey through Love, War, and Identity


Book Title: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
Author: Ocean Vuong
Publisher: Vintage
Number of Pages: 256
ISBN: 978-1529110685
Date Published: Jan. 1, 2020
Price: INR 299

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong Book Cover

Book Review

In “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” Ocean Vuong poses a poignant question: How does one communicate profound emotions, complex histories, and unspoken pain to a beloved yet unread mother? The answer, for Little Dog, lies in a letter—a letter to his illiterate Vietnamese mother that unfolds a narrative spanning three generations, two nations, and the intricate tapestry of both the best and worst of Vietnam and America.

Set against the backdrop of war, Little Dog’s family history begins with his grandmother, Lan, who escapes an oppressive marriage and becomes a prostitute during the Vietnam War. The narrative unveils the struggles of Lan, his mother Rose, and Little Dog himself, entwined with the complexities of race, identity, and gender roles, shaped by the conflicts between nations.

Vuong’s exquisite writing captures the beauty and brutality of life, interweaving non-linear and complex storytelling that mirrors the erratic nature of memories. While the novel delves into the complicated mother-son relationship, it also explores the enduring impacts of war, the immigrant experience, and the challenges of being gay in America. While the writing is undeniably beautiful, it may not be universally accessible, requiring readers who appreciate navigating through its intricate narrative and fluctuating language. The novel’s complexity, occasional haziness, and descriptive depth may pose challenges for some, but it is redeemed by Vuong’s enchanting storytelling and the profound premise that makes “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” an unforgettable read.

The book is both a personal and social commentary, touching on themes of family, trauma, immigration, and the harsh realities of contemporary America. Vuong’s portrayal of the struggles faced by Little Dog, his mother, and his grandmother is raw and unapologetic, providing an intimate look into their lives marred by war, mental illness, and societal prejudices. Despite occasional complications in the writing style, the novel’s poetic and purposeful approach invites readers to witness the beauty that persists in the face of tragedy. “On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous” stands as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, making it a compelling and profound exploration of the intricacies of life, love, and survival.

Ocean Vuong’s debut novel has received well-deserved acclaim, hailed as a masterpiece and work of genius. The lyrical and intimately powerful writing unveils a fractured family narrative torn between cultures, offering a narrative that is not merely briefly gorgeous but permanently stunning. The book, presented as a letter from Little Dog to his illiterate mother, delves into the complexities of family history rooted in Vietnam, navigating issues of race, class, and masculinity. Vuong’s elliptical and poetic narration captures the impact of war, the immigrant experience, and the challenges of identity.

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The relationship between Little Dog and his mentally ill, violent-loving mother, as well as his schizophrenic grandmother Lan, is a poignant highlight. Vuong’s reflections on love, labor, and freedom offer profound insights into the immigrant experience, familial bonds, and the human spirit’s capacity for resilience. “On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is an exploration of trauma, survival, and the transformative power of beauty amidst struggle. Vuong’s unique perspective and raw vulnerability make this novel an impactful and enduring literary work, leaving an indelible impression on the reader’s understanding of life’s complexities.

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