Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen is a stunning tribute to the ways in which families break apart and come back together. The writing flows along smoothly, submerging readers in the characters’ lives. Through creative pacing and wide ranging character arcs, Nguyen explores the diversity of human experience as well as the connections that sustain us.
While there are several dramatic plot points, Things We Lost to the Water is primarily character driven. The novel begins when a mother and her two young sons arrive in New Orleans in 1978. They’ve made their way across the globe from Vietnam, where the boys’ father remains. Hương and her sons (Tuân and Bính) try to make a home for themselves, but Tuân and his mother miss Vietnam desperately. Hương especially misses her husband, and Tuân falls in with a rough crowd in his eagerness to belong. Bính, on the other hand, has no memories of Vietnam. As he grows, he asks to be called Ben, and he struggles to understand Vietnamese.
The novel follows each of the three family members as they attempt to fashion some kind of life in New Orleans. Each makes choices to align themselves with Vietnamese or American culture or something in between, but none of them makes exactly the choices that we might expect. Bính chooses an Americanized name, but later seeks a literature degree and travels to Paris to feel more connected to his father — a university professor who also traveled to Paris in his youth. Hương meets a new man and tells her sons that their father has died, but she continues to write letters and record tapes for him.
Things We Lost to the Water spans decades, even though the novel is not particularly long. Nguyen makes this structure work like a film. There are moments with dramatic action, such as when Hương is trying to get to the boat her husband has arranged for their escape from Vietnam, but since the story begins in 1978 and ends in 2005, Nguyen also uses summary and montage to move the characters forward. For example, when Bính starts to explore his sexuality, we don’t get long descriptions of the gay bar he visits or the conversations he has with people he meets there. Instead, we get shorter bits of information. He’s watching Paris is Burning. He’s putting glitter on his face. He’s worried about getting to the bar by a certain time. He’s searching through his mother’s things to find some lipstick.
Nguyen is able to make his characters fully human by giving us only the essential moments of their lives, and his trust of the reader pays off. We have enough information to see where these people are coming from, how they are changing, and what they care about. Tuân, Bính, and Hương face the everyday conflicts of life — for immigrants, for young gay men, for single mothers — as well as large scale conflicts like war and hurricanes. Regardless of the conflict, they find their paths forward by their connections and interactions with one another.
As the characters encounter different challenges, readers are offered numerous opportunities to connect as well — to understand and to empathize. The novel explores the ways in which families unify and fracture under the various pressures of life, and it highlights how we cope with the things we’ve lost along the way. Some of the lost things may be small, while others are unfathomable, and in either case, we often need the help of other people to find peace.
Things We Lost to the Water
By Eric Nguyen
Knopf Publishing Group
Published May 4, 2021