Things We Lost to the Water: A novel - book cover
  • Publisher : Knopf; 1st edition
  • Published : 04 May 2021
  • Pages : 304
  • ISBN-10 : 0593317955
  • ISBN-13 : 9780593317952
  • Language : English

Things We Lost to the Water: A novel

A captivating novel about an immigrant Vietnamese family who settles in New Orleans and struggles to remain connected to one another as their lives are inextricably reshaped. This stunning debut is "vast in scale and ambition, while luscious and inviting … in its intimacy" (The New York Times Book Review).
A Christian Science Monitor Best Book of the Year
One of the Atlanta Journal Constitution's Top 10 Southern Books of the Year
A Chicago Public Library Best Book of the Year

Named one of the "Fifteen Books to Watch for" by The New York Times

When Huong arrives in New Orleans with her two young sons, she is jobless, homeless, and worried about her husband, Cong, who remains in Vietnam. As she and her boys begin to settle in to life in America, she continues to send letters and tapes back to Cong, hopeful that they will be reunited and her children will grow up with a father.

But with time, Huong realizes she will never see her husband again. While she attempts to come to terms with this loss, her sons, Tuan and Binh, grow up in their absent father's shadow, haunted by a man and a country trapped in their memories and imaginations. As they push forward, the three adapt to life in America in different ways: Huong gets involved with a Vietnamese car salesman who is also new in town; Tuan tries to connect with his heritage by joining a local Vietnamese gang; and Binh, now going by Ben, embraces his adopted homeland and his burgeoning sexuality. Their search for identity--as individuals and as a family--threatens to tear them apart, un­til disaster strikes the city they now call home and they are suddenly forced to find a new way to come together and honor the ties that bind them.

Editorial Reviews

One of President Obama's Favorite Books of the Year

Winner of the Crook's Corner Book Prize for best debut novel set in the American South
Longlisted for the Aspen Words Literary Prize

A Christian Science Monitor Best Book of the Year
An Atlanta Journal Constitution Top 10 Southern Book of the Year
A Chicago Public Library Best Book of the Year

"Nguyen's narrative strikes a very elusive balance: vast in scale and ambition, while luscious and inviting - enchanting, really - in its intimacy."
-Bryan Washington, The New York Times Book Review

"Eric Nguyen's masterful debut novel Things We Lost to the Water is a deeply engaging, heart-rending look at a family of Vietnamese refugees struggling to survive and how the choices they make as individuals have ripple effects on each other."
-Suzanne Van Atten, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"Things We Lost to the Water introduces an exquisite new voice in author Eric Nguyen; his debut novel is a luminous, balletic portrayal of an immigrant Vietnamese family in the US . . . Nguyen navigates their multiple perspectives with dexterity and emotional clarity, aching but never maudlin. I loved every page."
-Arianna Rebolini, BuzzFeed

"Powerfully written . . . This is a compelling and poignant debut novel . . . Achingly beautiful . . . A highly recommended read!"
-Helen Vernier, San Francisco Book Review

"Nguyen traces the family's struggles alongside fellow refugees, complicated friendships, dangerous street gangs and difficult first loves, but the story is more than a by-the-book bildungsroman. By shifting points of view throughout the novel, Nguyen . . . weaves the everyday challenges of growing up with the unique pressures of overcoming the traumas of war."
-Christina Leo, inRegister Magazine

"Things We Lost to the Water, the first novel from Eric Nguyen, is exactly the kind of rare treasure that readers are going to feel lucky to have uncovered."
-Steven Whitten, The Anniston Star

"One book to take special note of this month: Things We Lost to the Water, Eric Nguyen's debut novel. Nguyen's story spans three decades and chronicles the lives of a Vietnamese refugee family who flee to the U.S. Things We Lost to the Water is a lustrous portrait of first and second-generation immigrant life in America - full of joy, sorrow, secrets, and deceits - and showcases one family's desire to survive in life and with each other."
-Jordan Snow, Apartment Therapy

"I was captivated. The writing is absolutely gorgeous . . . The voice is strong and this is a powerful novel . . . Well worth a read. Really enjoyed."

Readers Top Reviews

Katherine A Speeckae
Much the way water moves and flows in a river so the water is always becoming new again, I worry that these characters will wash right out of my memory because they are kind of insubstantial. A bit like a shallow, muddy stream, I feel like they weren't fleshed-out enough for my taste. The novel has a really interesting theme of what water takes away from the members of this family, and at the same time what the water brings. It wasn't a bad book, I just felt a lot of emotional distance from the characters, like I didn't get a full enough picture of who they are. But the story was beautifully crafted and worth reading.
Christine Liu
What is the human cost of war — not just in needless deaths, but in futures that could have been? Children robbed of the chance to know mothers and fathers, lives forever marked by trauma from harsh journeys to strange and often inhospitable new lands, creative and intellectual potential lost in the struggle just to survive one day at a time. A melancholy sense of loss runs like a current through Eric Nguyen's remarkable debut novel about a young mother named Huong who flees from a wartorn Vietnam to New Orleans in the 1970s and the lives that she and her two sons lead there over the next few decades. Nguyen is an incredibly gifted writer. There were many parts of this book where I was struck by the beauty of the prose. It's also not easy to write convincingly from the perspective of a young child, and Nguyen manages to do this with graceful adeptness. Although I didn't feel that we really got to know the characters that well, I loved the overall narrative and eagerly look forward to Nguyen's next book.
Mark Gruber
I just finished reading Things We Lost to the Water, and I am writing this review through well-earned tears. I am so glad that I happened upon an article about this book a couple of weeks ago, and that I followed my instincts and purchased it soon thereafter. This is that rare book that leaves you deeply enriched, and grateful for the privilege of reading it — it is that special. The storytelling of Eric Nguyen is nothing short of brilliant, rich in details of time and place; his characters are drawn with such depth and clarity that I came to truly know them and genuinely care about their well-being. I will read many books this summer, but I feel certain that none will move or impact me as deeply as Things We Lost to the Water. I recommend it with all my heart!
Laurence R. Bachmann
Eric Nguyen's first novel is wonderfully assured and original. Themes of loss and assimilation, cultural identity and Asian stereotypes are all explored, to great effect. Some are expanded upon; others turned upside down. Water is a leitmotif and narrative engine. At first, it separates and divides a family of Vietnamese boat people arriving in New Orleans in the late 70s without the family patriarch. While not present, he haunts most of the book. 25 years later Hurricane Katrina floods and overwhelms the same group, with water once again a threat and a catalyst. The author's writing and plot development is quite sophisticated and assured. Each character seems authentic, the threesome familial but individual. No one experiences the same reality in the same way. The youngest son who arrives as an infant, unencumbered by memories of a homeland lost is most Americanized but ironically, the most alienated. His older brother struggles, literally and metaphorically straddling two cultures. Huong, their single mother, alone and with few resources, works to keep her family afloat. Things We Lost To Water is filled with experiences both memorable and painful--sometimes sorrowful, always worthwhile.

Short Excerpt Teaser

August 1979

New Orleans is at war. The long howl in the sky; what else can it mean?

Hương drops the dishes into the sink and grabs the baby before he starts crying. She begins running toward the door-but then remembers: this time, another son. She forgets his name temporarily, the howl is so loud. What's important is to find him.

Is he under the bed? No, he is not under the bed. Is he hiding in the closet? No, he is not in the closet. Is he in the bathroom, then, behind the plastic curtains, sitting scared in the tub? He is not in the bathroom, behind the plastic curtains, sitting scared in the tub. And as she turns around he's at the door, holding on to the frame, his eyes watering, his cheeks red.

"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.

With this precious cargo, these two sons, she darts across the apartment, an arrow flying away from its bow, a bullet away from its gun. She's racing toward the door and leaping down the steps-but she can't move fast enough. The air is like water, it's like run­ning through water. Through an ocean. She feels the wetness on her legs and the water rising. And the sky, the early evening sky, with its spotting of stars already, is streaked red and orange like a fire, like an explosion suspended midair in that moment before the crush, the shattering, the death she's always imagined until some­one yells Stop, someone tells her to Stop.

And just like that, the sirens hush and the silence is violent: it slices, it cuts.

"Hurricane alarm," Bà Giang says. The old woman drops her ciga­rette. "Just a hurricane alarm. A test. Nothing to be afraid of." She reaches over and cups Hương's cheek.

"What do you mean?" Hương asks.

"A test. They're doing a test. In case something happens," Bà Giang says. "Go home now, cưng ơi. Go home. Get some rest. It's getting late."





"Late." Hương understands, or maybe she does not. A thousand thoughts are still settling in her mind. Where were the sounds from before? Not the alarm, but the grating calls of the grackles in the trees, the whistling breeze, a car speeding past-where are they now?
She notices Tuấn at the gates. Her eyes light up.

"Tuấn ơi," she calls.

Tuấn holds on to the bars of the gate and watches three boys riding past on bicycles. One stands on his pedals. Another rides without hands but only for a second before grabbing-in a pan­icked motion-the handlebars. A younger one tries to keep up on training wheels. Three boys. Three brothers.

"Tuấn ơi," Hương calls again.

Tuấn waves as the boys ride leisurely past. When they're gone, he returns, and Hương feels a mixture of pure happiness, comfort, and relief.

Up the dirt road. A mother and her sons. Hand in hand.