Irish Examiner Saturday - Irish Examiner - Weekend
Family stories pieced together in clever Vietnamese narrative
THE narrator of Ocean Vuong’s debut novel is a young Vietnamese American writing a memoir to his mother who is unable to read
The three characters in the family are the writer called Little Dog, his mother, Rose, and grandmother, Lan. Using a charged and elliptical style, the story is told through short scenes, observations, sensual descriptions and ruminations on language and life. Through all of these it is possible to jigsaw together a narrative of how this little three-generational family unit came to be.
As a young woman Lan was a prostitute in Saigon during the Vietnam War. One night after work she met an American soldier in a bar and they fell in love and contrived to find some way to stay together. They had a daughter, and her son is Little Dog who tells the story of how the three of them survive in America.
Addressing his mother, Little Dog writes: “As a girl, you watched, from a banana grove, your schoolhouse collapse after a napalm raid. At five you never stepped into a classroom again. Our mother tongue is no mother at all then — but an orphan. Our Vietnamese a time capsule, a mark of where your education ended, ashed. Ma, to speak in our mother tongue is to speak only partially in Vietnamese, but entirely in war.”
His mother’s meagre earnings come from pedicuring at a nail bar and as we get deeper into their characters it is clear that she has been traumatised and her psyche bears life -altering scars. While she lashes out and withdraws into a fog of disjointed memories there also is much tenderness in her and in the story.
However, there is a harshness too in a novel with ever-tangible images of sex and death. Sometimes it is so salty, vivid and unflinching it can be a fairly intense and uncomfortable reading experience.
One of the features of the book is how the poetic idiom informs the style. Little Dog tells stories of coming of age as a gay Vietnamese teenager in small town/ rural America and digresses on the natural world, the Vietnam War and the family’s history.
He places great faith in the juxtaposition of these disparate elements to illuminate each other part and to move the story along.
This can make for some highly charged moments but it can at times create convolutions of meaning that remain locked in the personal.
Some lines have the simple impact of a car bumper sticker. The next might be oblique and impenetrable. Little Dog is probably telling us about his approach when he writes to his mother late in the book:
“I’m not telling you a story so much as a shipwreck — the pieces floating, finally legible.” That makes for a boldness and originality in the writing even if there are times when some of lines are a convolution too far.
However, there are not so many convolutions to prevent it from becoming a richly evocative piece of writing. In one passage, Rose buys her son a pink Schwinn bicycle — probably not the wisest move at a time when his first teenage experience of being gay is very clandestine.
Anyway, he is knocked from his bike and beaten up and the paintwork is scraped with a chain. Rose could as easily have attacked him again on his return home, battered and bruised, but this time she draws on her skills in pedicuring to restore her son’s bike painstakingly with her pink nail varnish. More than other forced literary effects, details like this bring the book most truly to life.