Book Review: "On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous"

“It’s in these moments, next to you, that I envy words for doing what we can never do — how they can tell all of themselves simply by standing still, simply by being. Imagine I could lie down beside you and my whole body, every cell, radiates a clear, singular meaning, not so much a writer as a word pressed down beside you.”


Words have power, words have meaning. They can make you feel something, no matter the length or the plot connection. That’s what I’ve learned from this book: sitting with words can be the most emotionally exhausting experience of one's life.


On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Veung, tells the story of a young Vietnamese boy, Little Dog, and his life growing up in his new and foreign home of America. Written in the form of a letter to his mother, specifically written so that his mother would never be able to read it, Veung introduces an intricate and personal relationship that we can all relate to. Little Dog has spent his entire life with his mother, and there is an incredibly personal connection between the two. Yet, there is so much that he has hidden, so much that he is exposing in this letter that his mother will never read. Is it possible to hold a close relationship while still maintaining secrets? Veung’s work answers this with a clear and definitive yes.


After the first part of the novel, one would assume this story functions as the average bildungsroman, the coming of age story that one would read in a high school english class, interspersed with intricate and emotional language. However, the coming story functions as so much more than that. When Little Dog becomes enamored with an older boy named Trevor, another relationship emerges. This relationship grows and wilts and grows again right in front of the reader’s eyes, coming to an abrupt end. One feels the urge to call the relationship between Little Dog and Trevor love, but it's much more complicated than that. Love is too simplistic, puts their relationship into a box that it far exceeds. Still, calling the relationship anything but love feels to be a betrayal.


At the end of the day, this book is for a very specific type of person. This book is stylistic, it’s contemporary, it’s linguistically heavy. What this book does not serve to be is plot-driven. Come for the language that will cut you like a knife, come for the simple scene of a relationship, both in a mother-son and boyfriend-boyfriend context. For me, this book physically hurt me. I felt Little Dog’s pains, I felt his triumphs, and I felt his serenity.


Veung proves with this work that beautiful language can sting as painfully as an exhausting plot. His words flow into each other, yet one is forced to pause, to think. Just as much work is done by Veung as is done by you, the reader. This is the power of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous: Veung’s language choices cause a reflectiveness that I have not found in any other novels.


- Henry

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