Born into a society in ruins after a catastrophic war, a boy – known only as Little Dog – and his mother flee Vietnam for a life in America – to be precise, the tenements of Hartford, Connecticut, a place of unbearable winters and drug addicts and thin apartment walls, where a few miles away lie expanses of tobacco fields and nothingness.
Little Dog’s mother works in a nail salon. With very little English, her most spoken refrain is ‘sorry’. She returns home at night with aching bones and the smell of acetone on her skin. Years later, now a grown man, Little Dog writes her a letter, poring over their life together. It’s a letter he knows she’ll never read: ‘The very impossibility of your reading this is all that makes my telling it possible,’ he writes.
‘I’m not telling you a story so much as a shipwreck – the pieces floating, finally legible.’
The ripple effects of war are an undercurrent through the novel; leaving their mark on bodies, memories, language. The power and the failure of language and the bridges it can build and break are explored in a fascinating way: Little Dog, the family’s translator, is left humiliated when they go out to buy Oxtail and none of them know the right word in English, resorting to miming the animal and being met with pitiful and blank stares. The language Little Dog and his mother share is also, in a sense, paralysed in time, her never having finished school.
‘As a girl, you watched, from a banana grove, your schoolhouse collapse after an American napalm raid. At five, you never stepped into a classroom again. Our mother tongue, then, is no mother at all – 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.’
Little Dog’s mother, whose English name is Rose, has a frenzied love for him that spills over into violence. Herself a victim of violence, both in her home with her ex-husband and in being a product of a wartime union between an American GI and a Vietnamese girl. The transmission of trauma between generations is deftly explored, both in the oral histories passed down from grandmother and mother to son, and implicit in the reactions to seemingly harmless scenarios:
‘I stood bewildered, my top army helmet tilted on my head. I was an American boy parroting what I saw on TV. I didn’t know that the war was still inside you, that there was a war to begin with, that once it enters you it never leaves – but merely echoes, a sound forming the face of your own son.’
One summer, when he is fourteen, Little Dog begins working in the tobacco fields some eight miles away from home. It’s there that he meets Trevor, an older teenager who was prescribed OxyContin for the pain from a dirt bike injury and is now hooked on drugs. They discover a desire for each other that Trevor can’t reconcile with his image of himself, an ‘all-American boy.’ He wonders out loud to Little Dog if it’s just a phase.
The novel is intensely lyrical, laden with a musicality of language that is unsurprising when you learn of Vuong’s background as a poet. There are, on occasion, moments of inscrutable prose, or metaphors not fully explored – things you can get away with in poetry, but to a lesser extent in literature. But while it’s is exquisite with language and the subject matter is heavy, Vuong still manages to make the prose accessible. It’s truly a unique talent and a feat of accomplishment, especially for a first novel.
Vuong captures human experience in all its pleasure and pain, a bittersweet melancholy in even the most innocuous of sentences. One night, Little Dog sits by himself, kicking his light-up trainers – ‘the world’s smallest ambulances, going nowhere.’