This is a novel that I will be thinking about for a very long time. It’s so far out of my sphere of relatability that it is almost impossible for me to form a coherent thought about it. Not easy to read, and equally difficult to review.
Weaving back and forth through time, Vuong’s novelized autobiography is about growing up as a Vietnamese immigrant in Hartford Connecticut in the 1990’s. Written as a letter to his mother who cannot read, the young man known as “Little Dog” looks back through his life and through the lives of his grandmother and mother. The latter told to him through family stories.
The “letter” reads like a jumbled box full of family photos. It’s as if “Little Dog” pulls out one picture at a time and examines it. Each one is a puzzle piece that he must put together to tell the story of their lives. Pieces of a history riddled with war, PTSD and bipolar disorder, poverty, spousal neglect and abuse. It’s a story about cultural and sexual identity, addiction, racism and the love shared by deeply damaged people.
Vuong is a published poet and his writing here is often poetic; as excruciating as it is beautiful. There is a lot of critical buzz about this debut novel and it’s deserved. Its uniqueness allows it to stand out in a crowded field of new young authors. The unflinching, raw honesty and disjointed narrative were difficult for me to work through, but it would not have been the same journey if Vuong had held back.
Oddly, I can’t say that it is either plot or character driven. The book seems propelled only by the urgent need of a son to reveal himself to his mother and for her to understand who he is.