Historical Fiction

Things We Lost to the Water

So, last year I made a mini goal of reading the entire Aspen Words Literary Prize longlist. It was an awesome reading experience (I just love this prize) and I was hoping to make it a yearly thing. I’d only read one of the fifteen longlisters (The Final Revival of Opal & Nev) when it was announced a few weeks ago though (so I’ve got a lot still to read), and I’ve been in a sort of weird mental space recently, so I’ve been leaning hard into the mood-reading in order to try and cope. That being said, I think my attempt to read this year’s longlist will be a bit more passive. There are a number that were already on my TBR, and as always, the full list looks spectacular, so I do want to read as many of them as possible. I just don’t think I’m going to be rushing to fit them in before the shortlist/winner announcements this year. Anyways, here’s my review for the second book from the list.   

 Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen

“If war had taught her one thing, it was that ideology—how you believed the world should be, what you would die to uphold—was always flawed, and though innocent on its own, it could lead to tragedy.”

Things We Lost to the Water is the story of a Vietnamese immigrant family to the United States in the 80s (and over the following years). Having fled from the war in Vietnam, Huong arrives in New Orleans with her two young sons (Tuan and Binh), one of whom was born in a refugee camp, and without her husband, Cong, who was left behind when they ran. As the years pass and Huong manages to find a job, a place to live, and works to give her boys a steady home life while they adjust to life and school in America, she still holds on to the hope that Cong will be able to join them. And even after finding out that he won’t ever be coming, she maintains a mythology around him to keep her sons “safe” from the truth of his absence. But as the boys grow and face their own challenges and identity crises, they inevitably find out about their father. And as Huong herself finally decides to move on and to own New Orleans as her forever home, she too must deal with her own dashed expectations of identity and her sons’ lives in the US. This family’s story builds to the inevitable environmental disaster that was Hurricane Katrina, and the ways that crisis may just bring them back into each other’s lives.

I waited a few days after finishing this novel before writing my review because I was struggling a bit with my thoughts on it. And if I’m being really honest, I don’t think the time really helped me get that much clarity. Let me start with the things I really liked, because there was quite a bit about this book that was super well done. For starters, the writing was lovely. There was a bit of a poetic feel to it, that gave it a great ebb and flow of tension and emotion that matched both the thematic concepts and the metaphorical water references throughout. Although there were a number of harsh realities in these pages, the smoothness of the writing softened the edges just a little. 

In particular, at the beginning, Nguyen captured the feeling of complete displacement/confusion/loss/overwhelm from being dropped in a new place without planning or warning or knowledge so well. And then, as time goes by, he similarly captures the complexities of being not just an immigrant to the US, but specifically a Vietnamese immigrant to the US during the time of the Vietnam War. There is a poignant exploration of the many paths a search for home, belonging, recognizability, and a people in a place that is foreign can take. And then that search is expanded to show how, slowly, as one adjusts to a new place, you not only get used to it, but it somehow becomes a part of you (whether you really want it or not). With all this talk of finding belonging, it is no wonder that New Orleans, as the primary setting, is brought to life with a vivid clarity, taking into consideration both the stereotypical things it’s known for and with an obvious focus on the Vietnamese and immigrant communities. 

The other primary thematic content was the way wars (and other traumatic events) break lives and make us create new ones when we are forced, in many ways, to leave old ones behind – not by choice, never by choice – and we all handle it differently and forget how to be who we were before. With that, I really appreciated the way Nguyen really brought attention to the injustice of forgetting as the only path to survival and how, in the quest to achieve that, we project our own pains onto those closest to us, onto those who most remind us of what we’ve lost/had to forget. This hurt quite a bit to read, in this case, with the way Huong’s treatment of her sons is so heavily based on her feeling about Cong’s absence and the “expectations” he would have had for his sons, had he been around. This distant specter deeply affected not only the mother-son relationships, but Binh’s personal connection (or lack thereof) with Cong, and the way he followed so closely in the father-he-never-met’s shoes, while still mostly unable to forgive or come to terms with not having had him around. Heart-wrenching.

All those highlights being stated now, let me try to articulate where my mixed feelings came from. Straight up, I don’t know for sure. But for all the emotional depth and what objectively seemed like fully developed characters (they all dealt with a range of struggles and hopes that were unique to them, rounded in a way that immigrant narratives are not always given space to be), I still felt like some connection between myself and the story was missing. Maybe the jumping between the perspectives of Huong, Tuan and Binh, as well as major jumps between years, left me feeling jumbled between them. The overall feelings Nguyen was portraying hit me as spot on, but the specifics of each individual lifeline remained distant from me, like watching through glass versus being completely immersed in. I don’t know if I can do a better job of describing how I felt than to say that maybe it was a case of the whole not adding up to be greater than the sum of the parts. And that lack of cohesion was a terrible feeling to be left with, because those parts were all so great and I wanted badly for the whole to feel just as great.

My lukewarm-ness at the end of this novel notwithstanding, it has so much going for it. Nguyen’s metaphorical questions about how many times in a life can you watch [the water] wipe away everything you have/ever known and survive a full restart, and can you ever get used to something like that, were so moving. This novel does a great job giving a personal face to a universalized concept, making it more genuine with that recognition. Although I didn’t come away from this book as impressed as I wanted to be, in an overall sense, I did both appreciate the writing and find the story to be truly compelling. And if this is one you had been thinking about reading, I truly encourage you to ignore my weird vibes/reactions and go for it yourself.   

2 thoughts on “Things We Lost to the Water

    1. Thank you – I really appreciate that. I always worry about it in particular when it’s a review for a book that I have some separation from/criticism of…because I want to make sure communicate the reasons why correctly/clearly.

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