Title: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
Author: Ocean Vuong
Publisher (UK): Penguin
Published (UK): 1st September 2020
Source: Purchased paperback
Length: 256 pages

Blurb (Penguin)

This is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family’s history that began before he was born. It tells of Vietnam, of the lasting impact of war, and of his family’s struggle to forge a new future.


‘Too much joy, I swear, is lost in our desperation to keep it.’

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong, p187 of paperback

This is the autobiographical family story of poet Ocean Vuong, addressed to his mother – who will never read it. I did not find this an easy read (both for the need to track the narrative through changeable streams of consciousness and for the often touching but equally often devastating subject matter) – but I did find it compelling and powerful.

‘Do you ever wonder if sadness and happiness can be combined, to make a deep purple feeling, not good, not bad, but remarkable simply because you did not have to live on one side or the other?’

On Earth We’re briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong, p123 of paperback

The episodes that directly narrate periods in the author’s life reminded me a little of the tone of ‘Stasiland’ by Anna Funder – that deeply personal and emotionally ready form of journalism that makes the past live. The episodes that weren’t tethered to his history felt more like poetry, and contained observations that seemed to cross directly over into my own (deeply different) experience – so I found there was a universality to the observations in this book, riding alongside the specificity of the author’s family history.