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A Broken Family Flees 1970s Saigon for New Orleans

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By Eric Nguyen

New Orleans can be a sticky place to capture on paper. An attempt requires navigating multiple histories, and juggling physical boundaries with lore lodged bone-deep in the mud. In the Louisiana of Eric Nguyen’s debut novel, “Things We Lost to the Water,” we find Winn-Dixie and shoddy apartment complexes and the gay bars at the end of Bourbon. We sweat under the humidity between ice cream parlors and midnight jaunts through the Quarter. Public pools, dingy couches and curbside churches coexist alongside daylong parades extending across the entire parish.

But in this story surrounding a family of four that very quickly becomes three, there’s also the memory of another city: Saigon. The book opens in 1978, as a Vietnamese woman named Huong has escaped that city’s turmoil and brought her sons, Tuân and Bình, to New Orleans without her husband. Nguyen’s narrative strikes a very elusive balance: vast in scale and ambition, while luscious and inviting — enchanting, really — in its intimacy.

Together, mother and sons have left one home behind in search of the possibility of another, but what constitutes a home metabolizes differently for each of them. Huong finds a sort of solace in a new lover, a used-car salesman named Vinh, and Tuân gets involved with the Southern Boyz, a local gang of Vietnamese refugees. Bình, who adopts the name Ben, seeks comfort in his queerness, and the fracturing that his sexuality causes in his relationship to his family. Nguyen has created a revolving triptych of characters who, despite their closeness, or maybe even as a result of it, remain a paradox to one another.

Tuân notes early on that “the water in New Orleans acted differently. Out on the shores of Vietnam and beyond, the water had been violent, shaking anything that lay atop it. But here, the water didn’t move; it stayed still, lazy.” The specter of that water looms heavy as time passes, but as Nguyen guides us through the decades into the 2000s he never shows his hand; he lets readers wind their own internal clocks. The result is both inviting and jolting. Nguyen’s characters exist within New Orleans’s myths — of mystery, splendor, pleasure — until they become inextricable from those narratives themselves.

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