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Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen
Historical fiction

Things We Lost to the Water

Debut

We love supporting debut authors. Congrats, Eric Nguyen, on your first book!

by Eric Nguyen

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Quick take

A moving multigenerational saga about one family's attempts to weather the storms confronting them in an adopted home.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Emotional

    Emotional

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_FamilyDrama

    Family drama

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Acclaim

    Critically acclaimed

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Immigration

    Immigration

Synopsis

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 into 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 copes 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 memory and imagination. As they push forward, the three adapt to life in America in different ways: Huong takes up 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. But then disaster strikes the city they now call home, and they must find a new way to come together and honor the ties that bind them.

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Things We Lost to the Water

August 1979

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

H??ng 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.

“M?,” he cries. Mom. The word reminds H??ng 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.

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Why I love it

I’ve just turned the last page of this remarkable novel and am sitting with a feeling of awe. How did Eric Nguyen do it?

This is an epic yet intimate saga following, over decades, a Vietnamese family who flee their homeland and resettle in New Orleans. They arrive bearing a deep wound—they were forced to leave behind their husband/father in Saigon. The brothers at the heart of this book, Tuan and Binh, find different paths forward—one joining a gang and the other turning to literature. But it is the story of their mother Huong that made me ache most. Full of hope, she sends cassette tapes to Vietnam hoping they will reach her husband.

I marvel at the richness of this world, from Vietnam to New Orleans to France, each individual from an elderly babysitter to a car salesman so distinct. With gentleness and care, this book takes on huge questions. How long does it take for a place to become home? How do we make our own choices while remaining close to family? How do we live with the secrets and betrayals of our loved ones? This reminded me of Patricia Engel’s Infinite Country, and left me, in the end, with a feeling of having known one family’s enduring love.

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Member ratings (7,289)

  • Andie T.

    Joliet, IL

    A moving story about love, loss, and life. It’s full of water symbolism, has multiple viewpoints, and spans decades. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking, but is character-driven & not action-packed fyi.

  • Anne L.

    Justice, IL

    Eric Nguyen’s first novel is phenomenal! He put so much research into this book. I learned a lot about Vietnamese history and New Orleans. Captivating characters and storyline. And a good ending too.

  • Brittany O.

    Portsmouth, VA

    I really enjoyed this one, both for the story and the writing style. Each family member is both frustrating and sympathetic in turn as they grow together and apart and deal with the father’s absence.

  • Eun K.

    CASTRO VALLEY, CA

    Read almost like a memoir, so vivid and engrossing. Took a little bit to settle into the story and then it was over so fast - wanted more! Reminded me of The Leavers & On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

  • Rebecca S.

    Armonk, NY

    Wow. This book was absolutely incredible and opened my eyes to a whole part of history that I haven’t yet explored. The writing was beautiful and I can’t wait to see more of that this author does!

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