“How unrecognizable America had made them, she was thinking, all of them.”
Subtle yet deeply evocative Things We Lost to the Water is a novel about belonging and displacement. In a similar fashion to Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists and Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, Eric Nguyen’s novel does not adopt the traditional structure that characterises family sagas (which usually offer an all-encompassing view of a family), honing in instead on specific periods of her characters’ lives. These moments do not always reveal crucial aspects of their identities and or experiences but they do succeed in giving us a crystal-clear snapshot of a particular moment in their lives.
“How much could they remember? There must have been a limit, a moment of transition when they were more American than Vietnamese, and there was no going back.”
The narrative, which spans three decades, from 1978 to 2005, and alternates between Hương, a young woman who was forced to leave Vietnam, and her two sons, Tuấn, aged 6, and Bình, who was born at a refugee camp in Singapore and is just a baby by the time they relocate to New Orleans. Công, Hương’s husband and the children’s father is still in Vietnam with the plan that he will join them at a later date. In New Orleans, Hương not only has to adapt to a new culture and language, but she has to provide for her two sons.
“The world was cold and wild. A country could collapse. A father could disappear. She would have to protect her sons, she was thinking, protect them from all the cruelties of the world.”
Although Hương moves to a Vietnamese neighbourhood in New Orleans she feels deeply isolated. She attempts to keep loneliness at bay by sending tape recordings to Công. Soon these tapes become a lifeline, a connection to her husband and to Vietnam itself. As time passes however Hương is forced to confront the possibility that Công will not be joining her in New Orleans after all. Later on, and to her sons’ chagrin, she begins dating a car salesman, who is also Vietnamese.
Meanwhile at school Tuấn experiences racism, from being bullied for his accent to being treated as if he were ‘slower’ than his peers. Unlike his younger brother, Tuấn has memories of their father, he can speak Vietnamese, even if in time he loses his fluency, and during their early years in America he does seem to yearn to return ‘home’, that is Vietnam. He eventually begins dating a Vietnamese girl who soon pressures him into joining a gang.
Bình decides to go by Ben, a name more or less thrust upon him by his teachers/peers, and unlike his older brother and mother is quick to embrace American culture and values. His storyline, sadly, was the most predictable of the three as it seems a step-by-step queer coming of age/sexual awakening.
Over the years the three begin to drift apart as they embark on incrementally diverging paths. Yet, they are united in their longing for something (be it the roads not taken or Vietnam or Công or to feel like they belong).
“Wanting—what a strange feeling, what a queer idea to have toward another person! You could want food, you could want rest, you could want safety, and—it dawned on him—you could want a person, too.”
Each chapter presents us with a different period in these characters’ lives. At times these glimpses felt too brief or inclusive. We may witness an argument or some other conflict, and we never really see how those fights/disagreements are resolved. The next chapter will jump ahead in time and to a different character without providing us with an explanation/summary of what has happened since the last chapter. This gave their storylines a rather elusive and fragmented quality. We never truly gain a full picture of their lives or of who they are. Consequently, this made me feel at a remove from the characters. I wanted more from them but before I could get invested in what they were experiencing the narrative would march onwards, leaving so many things up in the air.
For the most part, I really liked the author’s prose. In its apparent simplicity, it brought to mind authors like Anne Tyler and Jhumpa Lahiri. I also appreciated the author’s focus on the quotidian; the snatches of conversations and or interactions we get are far from monumental but they provide us with an insight into the characters’ everyday realities.
The dialogues were a hit or miss sometimes. Some brought to mind Benjamin Alire Sáenz (a favourite of mine), so that we have characters echoing each other, or speaking about nothing in particular. I found these to be extremely effective in conjuring specific moments as they really rang true to life. But, when it comes to exchanges of a more argumentative nature, these came across as somewhat forced, their rhythm was slightly off.
Still, this novel has a lot to offer. There is some beautiful recurring water imagery (which seem to serve a similar function to the trains in The Namesake) and plenty of atmospheric descriptions of New Orleans and Vietnam (alas I found the author’s portrayal of France to be a bit too quaint: the wine, the bread, the man riding a bicycle). The novel is also characterised by an almost palpable sense of longing and offers a thought-provoking exploration of identity and family. Longer chapters would have probably made me feel more invested in the characters. By the time I began warming up to them or to gain a fuller impression of who they were the novel had come to a close.
As debuts go this is nevertheless a solid one and I look forward to reading more by this author.
my rating: ★★★¼