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Things We Lost to the Water
Cover of Things We Lost to the Water
Things We Lost to the Water
A novel
A captivating novel about an immigrant Vietnamese family who settles in New Orleans and struggles to remain connected to one another as their lives are inextricably reshaped. This stunning debut is "vast in scale and ambition, while luscious and inviting … in its intimacy” (The New York Times Book Review).
When Huong arrives in New Orleans with her two young sons, she is jobless, homeless, and worried about her husband, Cong, who remains in Vietnam. As she and her boys begin to settle in to life in America, she continues to send letters and tapes back to Cong, hopeful that they will be reunited and her children will grow up with a father.
But with time, Huong realizes she will never see her husband again. While she attempts to come to terms with this loss, her sons, Tuan and Binh, grow up in their absent father's shadow, haunted by a man and a country trapped in their memories and imaginations. As they push forward, the three adapt to life in America in different ways: Huong gets involved with a Vietnamese car salesman who is also new in town; Tuan tries to connect with his heritage by joining a local Vietnamese gang; and Binh, now going by Ben, embraces his adopted homeland and his burgeoning sexuality. Their search for identity—as individuals and as a family—threatens to tear them apart, un­til disaster strikes the city they now call home and they are suddenly forced to find a new way to come together and honor the ties that bind them.
A captivating novel about an immigrant Vietnamese family who settles in New Orleans and struggles to remain connected to one another as their lives are inextricably reshaped. This stunning debut is "vast in scale and ambition, while luscious and inviting … in its intimacy” (The New York Times Book Review).
When Huong arrives in New Orleans with her two young sons, she is jobless, homeless, and worried about her husband, Cong, who remains in Vietnam. As she and her boys begin to settle in to life in America, she continues to send letters and tapes back to Cong, hopeful that they will be reunited and her children will grow up with a father.
But with time, Huong realizes she will never see her husband again. While she attempts to come to terms with this loss, her sons, Tuan and Binh, grow up in their absent father's shadow, haunted by a man and a country trapped in their memories and imaginations. As they push forward, the three adapt to life in America in different ways: Huong gets involved with a Vietnamese car salesman who is also new in town; Tuan tries to connect with his heritage by joining a local Vietnamese gang; and Binh, now going by Ben, embraces his adopted homeland and his burgeoning sexuality. Their search for identity—as individuals and as a family—threatens to tear them apart, un­til disaster strikes the city they now call home and they are suddenly forced to find a new way to come together and honor the ties that bind them.
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Excerpts-
  • From the book August 1979
     
     
    New Orleans is at war. The long howl in the sky; what else can it mean?
     
    Hương drops the dishes into the sink and grabs the baby before he starts crying. She begins running toward the door—but then remembers: this time, another son. She forgets his name temporarily, the howl is so loud. What’s important is to find him.
     
    Is he under the bed? No, he is not under the bed. Is he hiding in the closet? No, he is not in the closet. Is he in the bathroom, then, behind the plastic curtains, sitting scared in the tub? He is not in the bathroom, behind the plastic curtains, sitting scared in the tub. And as she turns around he’s at the door, holding on to the frame, his eyes watering, his cheeks red.
     
    “Mẹ,” he cries. Mom. The word reminds Hương of everything she needs to know. In the next moment she grabs his hand and pulls him toward her chest.
     
    With this precious cargo, these two sons, she darts across the apartment, an arrow flying away from its bow, a bullet away from its gun. She’s racing toward the door and leaping down the steps—but she can’t move fast enough. The air is like water, it’s like run­ning through water. Through an ocean. She feels the wetness on her legs and the water rising. And the sky, the early evening sky, with its spotting of stars already, is streaked red and orange like a fire, like an explosion suspended midair in that moment before the crush, the shattering, the death she’s always imagined until some­one yells Stop, someone tells her to Stop.
     
    And just like that, the sirens hush and the silence is violent: it slices, it cuts.
     
     
    “Hurricane alarm,” Bà Giang says. The old woman drops her ciga­rette. “Just a hurricane alarm. A test. Nothing to be afraid of.” She reaches over and cups Hương’s cheek.
     
    “What do you mean?” Hương asks.
     
    “A test. They’re doing a test. In case something happens,” Bà Giang says. “Go home now, cưng ơi. Go home. Get some rest. It’s getting late.”
     
    Home.
     
    Late.
     
    Getting.
     
    There.
     
    “Late.” Hương understands, or maybe she does not. A thousand thoughts are still settling in her mind. Where were the sounds from before? Not the alarm, but the grating calls of the grackles in the trees, the whistling breeze, a car speeding past—where are they now?
    She notices Tuấn at the gates. Her eyes light up.
     
    “Tuấn ơi,” she calls.
     
    Tuấn holds on to the bars of the gate and watches three boys riding past on bicycles. One stands on his pedals. Another rides without hands but only for a second before grabbing—in a pan­icked motion—the handlebars. A younger one tries to keep up on training wheels. Three boys. Three brothers.
     
    “Tuấn ơi,” Hương calls again.
     
    Tuấn waves as the boys ride leisurely past. When they’re gone, he returns, and Hương feels a mixture of pure happiness, comfort, and relief.
     
    Up the dirt road. A mother and her sons. Hand in hand.
About the Author-
  • ERIC NGUYEN earned an MFA in Creative Writing from McNeese State University in Louisiana. He has been awarded fellowships from Lambda Literary, Voices of Our Nation Arts (VONA), and the Tin House Writers Workshop. He is the editor in chief of diaCRITICS.org. He lives in Washington, DC. Things We Lost to the Water is his first novel.
Reviews-
  • Kirkus

    February 15, 2021
    In this decades-spanning novel, a family of Vietnamese refugees makes a home in New Orleans. Hương, who's pregnant, arrives in New Orleans in 1978 disoriented and overwhelmed but clear on one thing: She must get in touch with C�ng, her husband, who was inexplicably left behind when she and their young son boarded the boat that carried them away from Vietnam and the encroaching Communist regime. As she, her son, and her new baby settle into the Versailles Arms, an apartment building on a polluted bayou populated entirely by Vietnamese refugees, she sends letter after letter to their old addresses in Vietnam and constantly replays the moment of their unexpected parting in her head. "How had C�ng's hand slipped? she kept asking herself. That was the only explanation. The only possible one." It's only when C�ng sends her a brief postcard back--"Please don't contact me again" is the jist of it--that denial gives way to grief and a steely resolve to protect her two sons, no matter what. Over the following years, the novel moves fluidly among each of the family members' perspectives: Tuấn, her elder son, grows from a boy gentle with animals to a teenager trying to prove his toughness to the members of a Vietnamese American gang called the Southern Boyz. B�nh--or Ben, as he insists on being called, never having known Vietnam--loves to read, slowly realizes that he's gay, and eventually embarks on a transoceanic voyage of his own. Hương begins dating a kind car salesman named Vinh, but all three family members are haunted by C�ng's absence. Hương tells the boys early on that their father is dead, a lie that plants the seeds for familial rupture later on. Debut author Nguyen movingly portrays the way adopted homes can become as cherished and familiar as ancestral ones (Hương on New Orleans: "She realized this had become her city, the place she lived but also a place that lived in her") but also the truth that new loves can never quite heal old wounds. Seeing her sons, so like their father, growing away from her, Hương thinks: "It's always like she's losing him again--to the world, to life, to fate." An engrossing, prismatic portrait of first- and second-generation Vietnamese American life.

    COPYRIGHT(2021) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    March 29, 2021
    Nguyen’s captivating debut spans three decades to chronicle the lives of a Vietnamese refugee family. In 1978, Hư
    ơ
    ng arrives in New Orleans with her two sons, five-year-old Tuấ
    n and infant Bì
    nh. They settle in the Versailles Arms project on the eastern outskirts of the city, where the hurricane alarm reminds Hương of the war, and she mails tape recordings to Cô
    ng, the husband she left behind. Her messages receive no reply until finally, in a terse postcard, Công urges her to forget him. Hương tells her sons their father died, and over the years, the boys grow to follow different paths. In 1991, Tuấn falls in with a Vietnamese gang, the Southern Boyz. The next summer, Bình, who insists everyone call him Ben, takes refuge in books and a romance with an older white boy. A couple years later, Ben finds Hương’s old letters to Công and confronts her, shattering their increasingly fragile bond. As the characters spin away from each other, Nguyen keeps a keen eye on their struggles and triumphs, crafting an expansive portrayal of New Orleans’s Vietnamese community under the ever-present threat of flooding, and the novel builds to a haunting conclusion during Hurricane Katrina. Readers will find this gripping and illuminating. Agent: Julie Stevenson, Massie & McQuilkin.

  • Booklist

    April 1, 2021
    While the story arc might sound familiar--other-side-of-the-world refugees who endure challenging lives in the U.S.--Nguyen's gentle precision nevertheless produces an extraordinary debut with undeniable resonance. As the MFA-ed, prestigiously fellowshipped (Lambda, Tin House) editor in chief of diaCRITICS, Nguyen ciphers all that literary practice and training into creating a Vietnamese family, three-quarters of which arrive in New Orleans in 1978. Once upon a time, Hương was a village wife to teacher C�ng, mother to young Tuấn. Suddenly, all three are running for their lives, but only Hương and Tuấn board the boat, embarking on a path of everlasting separation. Hương carries within the unborn Binh, who later baptizes himself as Ben. Settling into a New Orleans East apartment, Hương continues to record cassette tapes for C�ng even after he inexplicably severs their familial bonds. Years pass before Hương finds supportive companionship with fellow refugee Vinh, and yet his constant presence remains a weighty reminder of C�ng's absence. Tuấn finds tenuous connections with a dangerous girl and a vicious gang; Ben seeks solace alone in a life of books, then on a journey abroad. Nearly three decades later, Hurricane Katrina will once again confront the trio with ""Things We Lost to the Water"" and the question of what can and should be salvaged from the devastation.

    COPYRIGHT(2021) Booklist, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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Eric Nguyen
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