Eric Nguyen gives everything away in the title. Things We Lost to the Water, the Vietnamese-American writer’s lyrical first novel, swims in liquid metaphors and imagery as it recounts 30 years in the lives of a small family of post-war Vietnamese refugees whose fortunes rise and fall like the tides.
For Binh, the youngest son, the struggle for assimilation, education, and self-acceptance as a gay man is long and difficult.
The story begins even before Binh is born. During a chaotic escape from Vietnam by boat in 1979, 25-year-old Huong is separated from her husband and ultimately crosses two oceans before finally landing in a community of Vietnamese refugees.
Her new home: rundown housing on the wrong side of New Orleans. With her toddler son Tuac on her hip and the newborn Binh in her arms, Huong has no choice but to push the unsettling mystery of what happened to her husband to the back of her mind and try to carve out some kind of life in this strange, humid, and rainy place.
As Tuac and Binh, who now calls himself Ben, grow, their paths diverge. Tuac, who speaks fluent Vietnamese, clings to that side of his identity and eventually falls in with a rough Vietnamese gang, while the smart, timid, and more Americanised Ben sticks close to home, spending time watching trash float by in the fetid bayou behind his home.
As if poverty, racism, and the constant threat of crime aren’t enough to deal with, teenage Ben starts to realise that in his community, which is fervently Catholic, he’s even more different than he realised. His sexual awakening happens at the local pool (water!), where he can’t take his eyes off an older boy he eventually befriends:
The sight of Howie’s skin made Ben’s heart stop for a second, then the next he would feel it beating too fast and catching fire and burning him alive. It felt strange, but he didn’t want to feel any other way. Soon it began to make sense: the way boys were supposed to want girls was the way Ben wanted Howie. Wanting—what a strange feeling, what a queer idea to have toward another person!
To his credit, Ben leans into his newfound self-awareness and is soon working as an underage busboy at a French Quarter gay bar. As the ‘90s fly by, he learns how to depend on the kindness of benefactors and navigates away from New Orleans, crossing his own oceans in hopes of building a safe and fulfilling life far away.
An affair with a sexy young French Communist spices things up, but it’s a doomed dalliance. After all, Ben can’t forget that it was Communists who drove his family into ruin in the first place.
Although the novel comes to a rather sudden and unnecessarily melodramatic climax as the floodwaters of 2005’s devastating Hurricane Katrina approach New Orleans—strangely, Ben offstage as it happens—Nguyen’s debut effort is a beautifully atmospheric bildungsroman, a satisfying success. You may not cry buckets of tears at the end, but your eyes won’t be dry.