Book review: ‘Things We Lost to the Water’ a story of resilient refugees

Credit: Tim Coburn

Credit: Tim Coburn

“Dear Cong, Another day in New Orleans …” For 15 years, that’s how Huong began the letters she wrote to her husband in Saigon, letters she knew he would never read. In truth, she wrote them for herself, to help “make the world make sense.” But when they are discovered by her younger son, her family’s tenuous ties unravel.

Eric Nguyen’s masterful debut novel “Things We Lost to the Water” is a deeply engaging, heart-rending look at a family of Vietnamese refugees struggling to survive and how the choices they make as individuals have ripple effects on each other.

Huong leads a comfortable life in Saigon as the wife of a French literature professor and mother to 5-year-old Tuan. But by 1978, after the Vietnam War ends and the city of Saigon falls, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has become so oppressive, the family has no choice but join hundreds of thousands of other “boat people” and flee the country.

Pregnant with her second child, Binh, Huong runs through the jungle one dark, rainy night, clutching the hands of Cong and Tuan, until they reach the beach and the boats that will take them away to safety. With the sound of guns exploding behind them, the family joins other refugees as they scramble into the boats and quickly set sail. In the chaos, Huong is shocked to discover that Cong was left behind.

Mother and sons eventually resettle in gritty East New Orleans, in a run-down apartment complex called Versailles. Huong gets a job at a Coke bottling factory and later at a nail salon while an elderly neighbor babysits. Huong insists to anyone who will listen that Cong will arrive soon. But her letters are returned unopened and one day she receives a terse note telling her to stop contacting him. She tells her sons their father is dead, believing a lie is kinder than the truth. But still she writes him letters.

As time passes, the family acclimates. One day Huong is struck by the realization that New Orleans feels like home. “She’d picked up its vocabulary, developed a taste for its foods, grown accustomed to its weather — the heat, the humidity, even the minor hurricane here and there.” She meets a man who moves in with her. He lacks initiative to help with household expenses, but he provides companionship.

As they grow up, Tuan and Binh are left on their own to navigate run-ins with bullies and school, where the language is unfamiliar. As a teenager, Tuan, who clings to memories of home, falls in with a street gang of young toughs who also fled Vietnam as children. Their escalating criminal activities around town threaten to suck him in. Meanwhile, Binh, who embraces the American way of life and changes his name to Ben, develops a love of literature and explores his sexuality with an older boy who teaches him how to swim, among other things.

When Ben finds his mother’s letters to his father, he leaves in anger, drops out of high school and sets off to make a life for himself. Along the way, he lucks into a job that opens up a world of opportunities, and he winds up in Paris.

It’s easy to cheer Ben on for making the most of his good fortune and for pursuing his dreams, even though he seems to squander them. But the pain he causes Huong by abandoning her cuts deep. Huong is not easy to love, but the sacrifices she makes, the tragic circumstances she endures and the goodness of her intentions despite her rigid nature make her the hero of this story. Her life is guided by a singular goal imprinted on her the day she left Vietnam: survival, for herself and her sons, at all cost.

“She had only ever wanted to protect them and prepare them for what’s next, whatever that might have been.”

Huong’s husband Cong hovers over the narrative like a specter. For Huong, he represents what her life could have been had he immigrated with them: less desperate, more stable, intact. She often invokes his exacting standards to keep the boys’ behavior in check, which causes Ben to fume. “All his life, it felt like she was trying to shape him, to mold him like a piece of clay into the man he’s never met.”

For Ben, Cong represents a piece of himself that’s been missing since birth. His search for that piece is what leads him to Paris. Cong taught French literature, and he spent time in the City of Lights. Ben hopes to feel a connection to his father there. Unknowingly, he shares his father’s disappointment with the city.

Flowing throughout Nguyen’s novel is the leitmotif of water, starting with the escape from Vietnam. A murky bayou backs up to the family’s apartment. A public swimming pool is the site of Ben’s sexual awakening. A hurricane tests the family’s survival skills.

In Nguyen’s world, water is a constant. Because of its very nature, though, water is changeable. It swells, and it recedes. It’s murky, and it’s clear. Family has similar qualities. People come and go. Hopes blossom and fade. Bonds are tested by physical and emotional distance. But family is a constant. It may not resemble the one we hoped for, but there it always is, reminding us where we came from.


“Things We Lost to the Water”

By Eric Nguyen

Penguin Random House

304 pages, $25.95