Book Reviews and Highlights

Things We Lost to the Water

Eric Nguyen

  • Asian American
  • Coming of Age
  • Family Life
  • Fiction
  • Sagas
  • New Orleans is at war.
  • Part I | Page: 3
  • #first-sentence
  • What Hương noticed the most was the concrete— the buildings, the roads, the sidewalks, the fountains, the statues. So much concrete, she thought. She imagined them rubbing against her, scraping her knees and hands, leaving bruises and scrapes and marks. She was thinking that way nowadays: what can hurt her, what can leave a scar.
  • Part II | Page: 10
  • #war
  • The first few weeks, as they slept in the pews, they seemed at peace. Hương, for her part, slept uneasily under the watch of the statue of Jesus on the cross. His sad, pleading eyes made her want to cross herself like all the other Catholics did.
  • Part II | Page: 12
  • #catholicism #religion
  • English was such a strange language. Whereas in Vietnamese, the words told you how they wanted to be pronounced, in English the words remained shrouded in mystery.
  • Part II | Page: 14
  • #english #vietnamese
  • “I am sorry,” Hương said, giving up, using the phrase she knew by heart: I am sorry. It was a good phrase to know. This was what the Australian English teachers taught her at the refugee camp. I am sorry for what happened.
  • Part II | Page: 15
  • #sorry
  • She repeated the words she knew in her head, a chaotic mantra of foreign sounds that contorted her mouth comically, strangely, like a puppet’s— Yes, no, thank you, please, yes, no, sorry, hello, goodbye, no, sorry.
  • Part II | Page: 16
  • #english
  • He didn’t like traveling. He had left the North with his family when he was a child. A refugee, he associated movement with loss.
  • Part II | Page: 24
  • #refugee
  • He had worked his entire life for this, he had said, and now they were letting him teach literature— to talk about not only the great Vietnamese poets but about the great French ones he loved, too, like Rimbaud, Verlaine, Gautier, Apollinaire, and Hugo.
  • Part II | Page: 24
  • #literature #french-literature #vietnamese-literature
  • Công was proud of all he’d accomplished, even if teaching was, at times, difficult. More often than not, he came home with two or three full folders of papers to grade, along with stories of troublesome students.
  • Part II | Page: 24
  • #teaching
  • They were finally getting used to Saigon, the loud vendors, the littered streets, the overbearing smell of motor exhaust. They had fallen into a comfortable domestic routine.
  • Part II | Page: 25
  • #saigon
  • After, they’d cook breakfast together, often rice with nước tương and eggs. By the time the city woke up— with people walking to work and motorbikes taking to the streets— Tuấn was awake, and they got him ready for school.
  • Part II | Page: 25
  • #breakfast #life #saigon
  • During the day, she’d clean the house and settle the family accounts. Công brought in the money, but it was because of her know- how with numbers that they could survive.
  • Part II | Page: 26
  • #personal-finance #survival
  • They passed out pamphlets from the new government explaining how it existed to serve the people. She would grow to hate that phrase— serve the people— at first because it was ubiquitous, then later, much later, as it became sinister, prickly.
  • Part II | Page: 27
  • #serve-the-people
  • A storm was coming; this was why it was so humid. Was it safe to go to the water now?
  • Part II | Page: 31
  • #water #humid #foreshadowing
  • Thinking about that now, she wondered what hardships her children would have. What misfortunes? What heartaches? What wars?
  • Part II | Page: 33
  • #hardships #parenting
  • “I’m not American!” he would say, reciting from memory what they taught him in school. “I am người Việt Nam. My father teaches the great and honorable literature of our nation. My mother is the daughter of our beautiful countryside.”
  • Part II | Page: 37
  • #vietnamese-pride
  • He’d blush. His whole body would feel warm and loved. It almost felt like home, or a type of home.
  • Part II | Page: 38
  • #home
  • He remembered his dad not being there and the waves and the sick feeling in his stomach like there was too much water in there.
  • Part II | Page: 39
  • #father
  • “If you’re not playing, you’re just ngu and we don’t like you.”
  • Part II | Page: 42
  • #vietnamese-language
  • As Bà Giang began to leave, she asked, “Did you find a người đàn ông mỹ? Those kids need a father. Any father is better than no father.”
  • Part II | Page: 63
  • #vietnamese-language
  • For one second, he wondered if it would be those soft, chewy durian candies, and his mouth watered. He hadn’t had durian in forever.
  • Part II | Page: 72
  • #durian #food
  • With fat arms, a potbelly, and a snout of a nose to match it all, Donald reminded Tuấn of an oversized pig. Donald and his friends poked at the thịt nướng.
  • Part II | Page: 74
  • #pig #vietnamese-language
  • As the others left, Donald leaned in and whispered, “Dog eater.” He said it again, pausing between the words—“ Dog. Eater.”— before catching up with his friends.
  • Part II | Page: 75
  • #racism
  • “Go back to China, Chinaman,” he heard Donald say. He wanted to say “I came from Vietnam. I am Vietnamese.” But he didn’t.
  • Part II | Page: 76
  • #racism
  • He was making their afternoon snack— rice with Maggi sauce and lunch bologna— when Bình came to him with his notebook.
  • Part II | Page: 76
  • #food #asian-food
  • His brother opened it up and showed him two words. On the left, his name, Bình. On the right, Ben.
  • Part II | Page: 76
  • #assimilation
  • “You can trust me, chị Hương. This runs like a dream. Would a fellow người Việt deceive you?” Yes, she thought, a fellow người Việt would deceive me.
  • Part II | Page: 107
  • #vietnamese-language
  • She knew everyone had their own pasts they wanted to leave behind. Not secrets, exactly, but something to be guarded just the same, with some guarding it more urgently than others. It gave her a vague feeling that they were the same type of people.
  • Part II | Page: 113
  • #personal-history
  • Love didn’t pay the bills. It didn’t cook dinner. It didn’t provide for a family. For all intents and purposes, love was too impractical.
  • Part II | Page: 119
  • #love
  • “The Việt girls here with their white names and straight As think if they do everything right they’ll be fine, they’ll have a happy life,” she once told him. “But they forget they’re người Việt. We’ll never be American enough for the people here. People look at us a certain way and they always will.”
  • Part II | Page: 138
  • #vietnamese-language
  • As he inspected the shelves, a pang of nostalgia came to him as he saw the foods of his childhood: haw flakes in red tubes, salted dried plums in small plastic boxes, White Rabbit candy.
  • Part II | Page: 140
  • #asian-food #asian-snacks
  • Ben told Howie about his love for books and writing. His favorite writers were Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, and that guy who wrote Lord of the Flies.
  • Part II | Page: 148
  • #english
  • He liked books and the feeling of knowing more about the world around him. He went to the library every week and could finish a regular- sized novel in three or four days.
  • Part II | Page: 148
  • #books #library
  • Wanting— what a strange feeling, what a queer idea to have toward another person! You could want food, you could want rest, you could want safety, and— it dawned on him— you could want a person, too.
  • Part II | Page: 152
  • #wanting
  • About the fact that he wasn’t afraid of the water anymore, at least not like before.
  • Part II | Page: 158
  • #water
  • “I mean, we’ll have to move somewhere else. You can’t live in a place without water.” Vinh says, “You can’t live in a place with too much of it, either.”
  • Part III | Page: 166
  • #water
  • There must have been a limit, a moment of transition when they were more American than Vietnamese, and there was no going back.
  • Part III | Page: 173
  • #assimilation
  • The Cheetos are spicy and taste like cigarette butts.
  • Part III | Page: 174
  • #hot-cheetos
  • Credit cards, Vinh has learned, are the bricks of the American dream. The trick is to have several cards, so you can pay each off with another. Borrowed money, borrowed time, borrowed country.
  • Part III | Page: 176
  • #capitalism #credit-cards
  • He goes to the closet. The first box (a tin for butter cookies) he sees is full of sewing supplies: spools of thread, a cushion for needles, loose buttons.
  • Part III | Page: 176
  • #danish-cookies
  • Em Hương đây. Em và các con đã tới Mỹ.
  • Part III | Page: 184
  • #vietnamese-language
  • As he checked out archive copies of The Comparatist or the Journal of Modern Literature, he also borrowed books he meant to read: Jane Eyre, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Germinal— books assigned to seniors in high school.
  • Part IV | Page: 197
  • #literature #english
  • “Did you leave something behind?” “Madame Bovary. I left Madame Bovary behind.” “Oh, I shelved it,” said Schreiber, walking over to the bookcase. His fingers glided over Faulkner and Fielding and Fitzgerald and stopped at Flaubert. “I thought it was mine.”
  • Part IV | Page: 198
  • #madame-bovary #english #literature
  • Ben came to UNO with a scholarship for gifted literature scholars with Schreiber his strongest advocate.
  • Part IV | Page: 198
  • #scholarship
  • Who out there cared about Madame Bovary or Flaubert? His mother had wanted them, Tuấn and him, to one day have proper, practical jobs. Ben would be a lawyer, she told him, and Tuấn would be a doctor. They would use their minds and skills to make the world a better place. None of that happened. Nothing ever happened the way you wanted.
  • Part IV | Page: 201
  • #madame-bovary #literature #english
  • “Those students. They get into a PhD program and they think they’re better than everyone else. Even me, sometimes— you should see some of them in class or department meetings! But, like I always tell them, talent isn’t limited. Anyone can be talented. It’s about nurturing. And you, you, Ben, you shall be my legacy.”
  • Part IV | Page: 204
  • #phd #grad-school
  • Hương wondered if the boy was still walking around New Orleans now, head down, pushing against the falling water.
  • Part IV | Page: 213
  • #water
  • She was afraid if she didn’t choose a tên thụy soon, his spirit would not leave. He would show up every time someone called his name and his family would suffer the consequences of a restless spirit.
  • Part IV | Page: 219
  • #vietnamese-language
  • Lan didn’t believe in much, but she believed in this: that life was a temporary stop, and death a journey home, wherever that was.
  • Part IV | Page: 219
  • #life #death
  • “Công told them art transcended boundaries, beauty crossed borders. He said, one can’t contain life and the stuff of life. It was impossible, he went on, to imprison that; it was impossible, he said, to imprison beauty and truth, no matter who was in charge of Saigon— no person, no ideology, no misguided boys.
  • Part IV | Page: 223
  • #art
  • As his mother got older, Tuấn noticed, she put up less of a fight. A resigned dignity came on her face and she nodded.
  • Part IV | Page: 232
  • #family #parents #aging
  • When people haven’t seen each other in a long time, there was always a comment on how different one of them looked.
  • Part IV | Page: 236
  • #physical-appearance
  • His hero of a father sacrificed his life under Communist bullets while his mother played reverse Penelope, cast away from her homeland waiting for her Odysseus until the news of his death arrives and she is transformed into a tragic widow who weaved fables for her children (because that was what his life was— a fable, a series of twisted truths, outright lies).
  • Part IV | Page: 249
  • #family-history
  • His immigration to Paris was a story made of flesh and bones written by himself, and no matter how horrible things turned out, he was the one who wrote it. That was the important part— to be the writer of his own story.
  • Part IV | Page: 249
  • #immigration
  • Hương pokes her head inside and sees an old Paris by Night video playing. Women in áo dàis dance with pink umbrellas and sing, Sài Gòn đẹp lắm, Sài Gòn ơi! Sài Gòn ơi!
  • Part V | Page: 263
  • #paris-by-night #vietnamese-language
  • “Hương ơi! I’ve survived the collapse of a country. I’ll survive this. I’m sure I’ll survive anything. Believe it or not, người Việt are like cockroaches. We’ll survive a nuclear bomb!”
  • Part V | Page: 264
  • #vietnamese-language
  • He’d been having dangerous dreams all week. They always involved water. They felt so real that, for a split second, between the dreaming and the waking, he confused them for memory.
  • Part V | Page: 266
  • #water #dreams
  • The city is like a bathtub. The winds are the hands of a housewife. The water a mixture of tap and cleaning detergent. The housewife scrubs and scrubs. She is sure not to miss a spot. She wants to make sure no one forgets her name when she is gone and how good a housewife she was. She is bitter.
  • Part V | Page: 283
  • #water
  • “Bình? Mẹ đây.”
  • Part V | Page: 289
  • #last-sentence