Book Review: “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” – Who We Are Beyond Words

A letter never to be read, a confession never to be understood. Ocean Vuong’s debut novel looks into the profound rift of the unsaid. Viscerally, honestly, intimately, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” explores race, class, masculinity, addiction, violence and trauma in mesmerizing prose, brimming with lyricism. Photo credit: IR / BD.

Can language be a bridge? Or does it keep us irreversibly apart? There’s a space, one could say an unbearably immense one, where words fail us. In his debut novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous”, American-Vietnamese poet Ocean Vuong invites us to his very own battle ground, so that we can bear witness to who we are beyond words.

Written as a confessional letter addressed to Vuong’s illiterate mother, the book touches the deep wound of the inexpressible, the limits of communication, as it runs through the empty fields that separates us from the other. The novel inhabits the profound rift of the unsaid. The attempt to cover this distance is the central tension point in a narrative that loosely travels through the memories of the author.

“Dear Ma, 
I am writing to reach you - even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are.” - Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

By the hand of memory we are carried along through loss, pain, the discoveries of adolescence, the sweetness of family, the rooted scars of war. More so, Vuong gives voice and a face to the New England working class, deeming their “bodies worthy of literature with capital L”. 

An urgent portrait of US society emerges: colourful, diverse and poetically down-to-earth. Vuong interprets, with an original voice, what it means to be an immigrant in the United States. More deeply, what it means to be an Asian, queer, working-class immigrant in the United States. A tale between violence and beauty, or a search for beauty after violence. How to remain? How to survive beyond the possibility of empathy? More than a letter to a mother who can’t read, it’s a letter to a country who can’t understand.

“It’s a beautiful country, she’s been told, depending on who you are.” - Ocean Vuong, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

By the end, there’s no sense of closure, no answer – the deep wound of the inexpressible remains open. Maybe there is no possible answer, no possible translation, and yet, there is beauty. 

“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is a necessary book, if one believes in such a thing. It begs us to understand those that we cannot. It begs for empathy beyond words, beyond language, perhaps beyond identity. I’m writing this review in a moment where many of us have found ourselves unexpectedly lonely: unable to meet loved ones, quarantined, isolated. The gap between us seems to have grown larger this year – this book brings us closer. 

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