A Vietnamese-American boy grows up in icy Hartford, Conn., raised by a mother and grandmother who bear the scars of poverty, mental illness and the Vietnam War. As a teenager, he takes a summer job harvesting tobacco and stumbles into a sexual awakening in the arms of the farmer’s opioid-addicted grandson. It sounds like the plot of a coming-of-age novel, but such pat categorization undersells the poet Ocean Vuong’s fiction debut. The semi-autobiographical book is framed as a letter from narrator Little Dog to his illiterate mother; its language falls somewhere between epic poetry and impressionistic memoir. Vuong’s prose crystallizes, in images and emotions, one particular experience of living with inherited trauma in the very country that inflicted it and of achieving moments of incandescent beauty amid so much pain.
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