FAR EAST, SOUTH ASIA AND AUSTRALASIA

This 2019 novel attracted plenty of attention. Written by poet Ocean Vuong, who left Vietnam in infancy as a refugee, it is an epistolary novel – sort of. It reads for the most part as a memoir of growing up as gay, as part of an ethnic minority, as poor and as an outsider in present-day America. As ever with these things, the author insists it is fiction, so I would assume it’s a mixture of the two – does that mean it’s auto fiction? I’m never quite sure what that is exactly.

The novel takes the form, very loosely, of a sprawling episodic letter to the writer’s non-English-speaking mother, with whom the protagonist, known as Little Dog, has a complicated relationship, since her approach to child-rearing combined love with blatantly violent abuse. It’s a bit of a paradoxical kind of letter, too, since it’s written in English prose (very poetic prose), a language that the intended recipient doesn’t read or speak. Thus, taken literally, the whole emotionally charged screed is pretty much wasted, which I guess is the point, and even the explanation for the depth of the unloading that goes on.

Poetic language is often fine, even a positive, but to be frank I feel like maybe Ocean Vuong’s poetry actually isn’t that great. The novel was engaging enough, and devastating on the impact of the conflict in Vietnam on a whole generation of young women and children. And men too: the protagonist’s grandmother’s American ex-lover is scarred, emotionally, by his time during the conflict in Vietnam. The novel is also damning too on America’s current lost generation of young men, strung out on drugs and lacking hope for the future.

Overall, I felt the book started off really good, and then fell apart for quite a long time around the middle, when I was tempted to skim pages and felt it was all a bit … wanky, to reclaim a phrase from my youth … by which I guess I mean off-puttingly self-conscious and self-regarding. It’s a thin line isn’t it, as I generally love an arty, intellectual, confessional memoir-type affair, but this didn’t work for me. And this is another book that I wasn’t supposed to be reading right now, since I have nominated a whole bunch of other books for the 20 books of summer project (I’ve got to the stage with it now where I’ve started swapping out choices!).

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