Melting pot: Vietnamese family settles in New Orleans

“Things We Lost to the Water” transposes Vietnamese refugee tale to New Orleans, where a single mother writes notes to her absent husband.

Penguin Random House

In his debut novel, Eric Nguyen brings masterful masterful storytelling to “Things We Lost to the Water.” The story follows first- and second-generation Vietnamese immigrants living in New Orleans, beginning in the late 1970s and ending with Hurricane Katrina. His incredible story inspires compassion. 

There is astounding grace, emotional depth, and imaginative speculations in this saga about a young family from Saigon. In the city, Công works as a professor of literature at a university; his devoted wife, Huong, is a homemaker; and Tuấn is their sweet 5-year-old son. “Theirs was a house of love,” Huong thinks. “It was all they ever needed – love. And with love, they would survive.”

But as the chaos of the Vietnam War comes nearer and the threat of a Communist takeover looms, the family rushes to escape the country. In the confusion, Công disappears as their boat leaves, and Huong and Tuấn face a difficult journey to New Orleans, with a new baby, Bình, born in a refugee camp en route.

Disoriented and grieving, Huong is homeless, jobless, and now a single parent in the United States. But she soon finds a community of fellow refugees at the Versailles Arms apartment complex, which sits on the banks of a bayou near New Orleans. In alternating chapters, the perspectives of Huong and her boys are shared as life rushes forward. Huong cannot forget Công, and she tries to keep the memory of her sons’ father alive, sending letters and cassette recordings to him, hoping that he will join them. “The world was cold and wild,” Huong decides. “A country could collapse. A father could disappear. She would have to protect her sons ... protect them from all the cruelties of the world.”

Huong later writes to Công “about the colors of New Orleans, how it shook her awake and made her feel alive, how she had grown fond of the place because of the colors.” Meanwhile, the boys navigate their youth, encountering Bà Giang, a nosy neighbor who becomes a treasured babysitter; Donald, an annoying boy who bullies Tuấn; and Addy, a little girl who befriends Bình. Huong finds employment and meets Vinh, a kindly car salesman who begins to care for her and tries to be a father figure to her sons. 

Nguyen’s prose captures the nostalgia and tumult of childhood and family life, as well as the complicated issues faced by refugees, including language barriers and pressures to assimilate. His keen observations about human nature, made in evocative prose, suffuse each page, and his characters prove endearing and memorable. 

As the boys enter their teens, gentle Tuấn, who found refuge in nature and animals, grows away from his family. Instead, he searches for acceptance in a gang. Bình, who now calls himself Ben, embraces his American identity and finds a haven in books. He slowly realizes that he is gay, and worries he’ll be alienated from his family because of his sexuality.

Secrets and lies begin to tear the family apart, and Nguyen portrays the heartbreaking struggle of the family's evolution. He notes the space and time needed for individuals to mature as well as heal, and he signals the desire to find home. “Things We Lost to the Water” compiles evidence of cruel prejudice, which is expressed in thoughts and deeds, lurks in memories, and hides in fears. Yet, he also points to the power of kindness, which shines through the difficulties.  

Nguyen is a stunning new literary voice. His novel is a magnificent and necessary tale of bravery and love.

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