Monday, May 10, 2021

Book Review: "Things We Lost to the Water" by Eric Nguyen

Eric Nguyen's debut novel, Things We Lost to the Water, is a beautifully written look at an immigrant Vietnamese family, and how their lives are shaped or reshaped by America.

Huong and her two young sons leave Vietnam in 1979 and move to New Orleans. Huong’s husband, Cong, stays in Vietnam, although she looks forward to the day they will be reunited. She sends letters and audiotapes home to Vietnam in the hopes that her words will motivate him to come to America, so her boys can know their father.

As she starts to settle in to their new home, Huong starts to lose hope that she’ll ever see her husband again. But she’s determined to create a better life for her sons, even though it’s hard to understand what it’s like for them growing up when you’re different to those around you.

“If her sons asked about their father, she told herself, she would tell them some kind of truth, what she knew of it: their father would not be joining them in New Orleans; this was all beyond their control and they had to try their best, she would say, to move forward.”

The book moves forward as snapshots in time, from 1979 to 2005, narrated by Huong and her sons. Huong becomes more acclimated to life in America and becomes involved with a Vietnamese car salesman. Her older son, Tuan, tries to keep his Vietnamese identity by joining a gang and trying to prove himself, while her younger son Binh, who calls himself Ben, struggles with his sexuality and his desire to escape the life his mother has built.

Ultimately they are all changed when New Orleans faces its greatest challenge ever. Will it bring them together or push them further apart?

I was so taken in by Eric Nguyen’s storytelling ability. It’s so hard to believe that Things We Lost to the Water was a debut novel. This story is thought-provoking and moving, although the challenge of the narrative structure is I didn’t feel like I got to know the characters as well as I would have liked, because we saw them in short bursts rather than consistently.

I definitely believe this will be a highly talked-about book, and I look forward to seeing what’s next in Nguyen’s career!

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