Eric Nguyen’s debut novel Things We Lost to the Water is a breathtakingly beautiful and heartbreaking account of a family making their way in a new place, trying to hold on to the past while making room for the future.
After leaving Vietnam, Hương arrives in New Orleans and builds a new life with her two young sons. Hương’s husband is left behind – she grapples for years with her memory of him standing on the shore, watching them flee. She continues to write letters and send recorded tape cassettes to him until the day she receives a note telling her to stop contacting him.
As a mother, I understand her dilemma. We want to protect our children. In this instance, the truth was the same either way – he wasn’t coming to find them. So, she could either tell her sons that their father gave up, or that he’s dead. To preserve his memory in the minds of their children and protect them from the harsh reality, she makes the pivotal decision to tell her children that their father is dead.
She would keep from them the father who stayed behind, the family they could have been, the injustice of what they had lost. She could protect them, if only they’d forget. She would protect them, if only she’d forget. Forgetting, she was so sure, was easy, the easiest thing that could be done; we forget all the time – we forget names and addresses, the color a childhood dress, the name of a favorite song. We could forget anything and everything, if only we tried, if only we made the effort.”
Additionally, this is a coming-of-age story of the two boys – Tuấn searching for belonging and Ben (who chose to go by Ben over his Vietnamese name Bình) eventually realizing he is gay.
Tuấn and Ben grow up in New Orleans, going to school and playing with neighborhood children. When their mother is at work, a neighbor watches over them along with a few other children. In these spaces, they learn about culture, identity, and race.
After his mother tells him his father is dead, Tuấn’s disparity eventually leads him into rebellion, and he joins a local gang.
As he watched his mother and brother now – a brother Tuấn’s father didn’t even know about – Tuấn felt somehow let down. Dad wasn’t here to enjoy any of this. Dad would never be here to enjoy anything ever again. Who were they, any of them, he thought, to have fun?“
Ben wasn’t old enough to remember their father when they left Vietnam, and as he grows up, he feels some resentment about the expectations put on him by a man he thinks is dead.
He died a hero. That’s the word his mother used, hero, whenever Ben asked about him. Whatever else he knew of the man were echoes of would haves, could haves. He would have thought this… he could have done this, your father… Not a real-life father but a ghost of a father, an afterimage of a father.”
The loss of their father is acute not because they knew him and miss him, but because Hương tries for so long to hold onto him.
When the truth is eventually discovered, Hương, Tuấn, and Ben must navigate the storm that is caused by the revelation.
The book itself opens with a false alarm – Hương hears a siren and thinks New Orleans, her new home, is under attack. This story does more than demonstrate Hương’s propensity to be ready in the face of an emergency, it shows – and foreshadows – her life and role as a mother.
‘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.”
The bulk of the story is sandwiched between two key events – Hương’s escape by boat and the torrential hurricane that dumps on New Orleans. In this way, nature’s effects on our lives are potently obvious.
Things We Lost to the Water is a novel of reconciling memories with the present, of knowing when to let go and when to hold on, and of building something new in the face of adversity. It’s a story of family and belonging, identity and what it means to be home. It is a tale of life’s choices and all their consequences, good and bad.
Lastly, here is a beautiful quote from the story:
Weeks later, after Howie left for school and the pool closed up and the August heat gave way to cool September air, he thought about how the stars, too, were once used to tell the future, like the words to a story written in dots, holding everyone’s fate. How he wanted to run his fingers across those stars and read what they said, every single word, every piece of light.”
While this is Eric Nguyen’s first novel, this is not his first piece of writing. Learn more about Eric and his other works at his website.