Book review: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Ocean Vuong | 2019 | Semi-autobiographical, literary fiction

Once in a while, a book comes along that reminds you why you read. A book that makes the world realise why books must be written, why authors must be celebrated and what beauty the written word holds.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is not a book. It’s a celebration of language, of the art of writing, and of those million little stories that come alive when you write about them.

Written in the form of a letter, the central character (named Little Dog, a literal translation of his Vietnamese name) converses with Rose, his mother. This conversation meanders like a river gushing through an abyss, touching the bends of childhood, his physical abuse, his parents’ failed marriage and Little Dog’s journey towards acceptance of his own homosexuality. He also traverses into the history of his grandmother Lan, Vietnam during the war and how this war shaped Lan’s experience of migration and love.

Above all, this book is a poem. It’s a sad story but written with such beauty that the feelings will catch in your throat. You’ll be at the end of a page, and you’ll see your tears dropping soundlessly.

The importance of syntax plays a vital role in this novel. It is reflected in Little Dog’s relationship with the English language, the constant thought that he would be given a better world if he knew English. His relationship with language shows how language shapes the world of an individual. Communication, after all, is how we experience the world. The word is everything, isn’t it? What is our fragile life without the language to convey it?

Finishing with a set of lines that knocked the wind out of my lungs: I am thinking of beauty again, how some things are hunted because we have deemed them beautiful. If, relative to the history of our planet, an individual life is so short, a blink of an eye, as they say, then to be gorgeous, even from the day you’re born to the day you die, is to be gorgeous only briefly.

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