By David Canfield and Leah Greenblatt
June 06, 2019 at 12:58 PM EDT
Penguin Press; Liveright

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous doesn’t read like fiction — or, more accurately, what we think we know to be fiction. It’s lyrically fragmented: the rubble of an entire life, exploded, then delicately pieced back together on the page.

Drawn from award-winning poet Ocean Vuong’s own life story, On Earth is structured as a letter written from a young writer named Little Dog to his mother about their intensely loving but troubled bond, and their family’s history as Vietnamese immigrants. It’s a searching book, particularly when it comes to matters of the heart. The narrator wrestles with how his mother beat him in childhood; he finds love with a man, only for it to be tragically cut short. Yet On Earth is anything but bleak. It is transporting, mysterious, wise: “He was white. I was yellow. In the dark, our facts lit us up and our acts pinned us down.”

Vuong’s experiment isn’t perfect — lovely prose can take a turn toward the affected — but he proves to be a remarkable storyteller. Little Dog’s grandmother Lan comes to life in the most disturbing, visceral, bizarrely poignant Vietnam War story I’ve ever read. Depictions of poverty, queerness, and the immigrant experience are vivid, exacting, and humane. Same goes for On Earth as a whole. This book is no ordinary novel. This thing feels alive. —David Canfield

Grade: A-

Patsy, by Nicole Dennis-Benn

“I can never understand why you Jamaicans go to America for vacation when you live in this paradise,” a pink-cheeked visa agent tells Patsy’s 28-year-old heroine in the book’s opening pages. For locals like her, of course — the ones born and raised in the grinding, perpetual poverty of the island — it’s not paradise at all. And for Patsy, it’s not really a vacation, either; her actual plan is to be reunited in New York City with her childhood best friend and lover, Cicely, and never come home. That means leaving behind not just her steady government job but her five-year-old daughter, Tru.

The ugly secret Patsy can only admit to herself is that she doesn’t love her little girl, at least “not like she’s supposed to, or like her daughter loves her.” But New York, when she finally arrives, loves her even less. Dennis-Benn (Here Comes the Sun) writes about the immigrant experience with abiding, bone-deep empathy — swinging between standard English and patois the same way that Patsy and her daughter navigate their own need to code-switch as the years pass. Estranged from one another and bound to a world that tends to treat black womanhood and queer sexuality as invisible at best, their separate but intertwined stories wend through hurt and hope and inalienable dreams; not just for a better life, but a truly honest one. —Leah Greenblatt

Grade: A-

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