Book Review: “Things We Lost to the Water” by Eric Nguyen

My selection for the Book of the Month club in May was Things We Lost to the Water, the debut novel of Eric Nguyen. I would never have guessed that this was the author’s first book. After making my way just a few pages into the story, I knew I’d stumbled onto something special. (Be prepared. This review will likely border on fangirl territory!)

A mother, Hương, immigrates to the United States from Vietnam to escape the Communist government that has been harassing her family. Fleeing by boat, she brings her young son, Tuấn, with her, later giving birth to another son, Bình, at a Singapore refugee camp.

Công, Hương’s husband and the boys’ father, is supposed to flee with his family yet becomes separated from them as they board the refugee boat. Công is ultimately left behind in Vietnam, and his family is unsure what has happened to him.

Things We Lost to the Water describes Hương’s and her sons’ experiences as they adjust to life in 1970s New Orleans and further years. Hương pours her heart out to Công through recordings on cassette tapes, which she secretly mails to their old home in Vietnam, using pro-Communist titles to avoid detection.

This book is written from multiple perspectives, spanning from 1978 to 2005. As I’ve mentioned in previous book reviews, the multiple-perspective structure is not usually my preferred narrative style. However, I think this instance is actually one in which the structure is essential and adds depth to the story. I really don’t think the book would have been quite as impactful without providing the reader with first-hand accounts of the characters’ experiences.

Even with such a heart-wrenching plot, my favorite feature of Things We Lost to the Water is Nguyen’s writing style. His writing is like poetry, and while descriptive, he doesn’t flood us with unnecessary words. In just a few sentences, he conveys the complex layers of a character’s experiences, emotions, and personality. Take this paragraph for example:

“For the first time since she’d met him, she realized she was less of a person and more of a test to this man. She was a puzzle to figure out, a jigsaw, a number among other numbers. He lived to serve not humanity but his ideas and career. In that way, she thought, Catholics were not too dissimilar from the Communists. She had been hoping this man was different. How foolish she was to put her life in his hands.”

(p. 21)

Throughout the novel, I felt Hương’s unease as she tries to understand her new surroundings. I felt Tuấn’s and Bình’s confusion over their father’s absence while dealing with racism and homophobia in their community.

The theme of water also plays out repeatedly within the story, culminating in their experience of Hurricane Katrina in the early 2000s. Nguyen effortlessly weaves in water references, leaving you with a perfectly crafted story you’ll keep thinking about.

I cannot encourage everyone to read this book enough! I definitely think this book deserves a full 5 crows, and I’ll be on the lookout for more books by Eric Nguyen.

Have you read Things We Lost to the Water? Do you plan to add it to your TBR (To-Be-Read) List? Let us know in the comments!

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