It’s 1979 and Huong tries to find cover as sirens blare outside. She and her two young sons have recently arrived in New Orleans after escaping Saigon and any sound of alarm—even a routine hurricane alarm test—brings her back to the war. Although they have been in New Orleans for about a year by then, she’s not used to the peace and tranquility in their new home after suddenly leaving everything behind. Eric Nguyen’s debut novel, Things We Lost to the Water, is a lyrical tribute to New Orleans and the Vietnamese community there.
As the title hints, water is a theme that flows through the novel, which starts as Huong and her son Tuan escape Saigon. Pregnant with her second son, she’s clutching Tuan with one hand and holding on to her husband Cong with her other as they approach the boat that will take them away to what they trust will be safety. Yet at the last moment, almost without Huong noticing, Cong lets go of her hand and never makes it to the boat. This separation will haunt her for years.
Binh, or Ben as he is later known, is born in a Singapore refugee camp and is still a baby when the family arrives in New Orleans. For a short while, they stay with another Vietnamese couple who has been in the US for some time. Mrs Minh asks about the journey by boat and Huong remembers back to her harrowing journey.
Huong wanted to tell the wife about the way the water moved, how you never got used to it, about the men on the boat and their constant fighting, about the uneasy sense of knowing only water, knowing that it connected the entire world—one shore to another—yet not knowing when you might see land.
Water is all around New Orleans, not least the bayou near the family’s home at an apartment complex called The Versailles Arms. All the families there are Vietnamese immigrants; they form a close-knit community. Older son Tuan is old enough to remember Vietnam and thinks about the differences between his former home and his new one. Again, water becomes the focus.
He remembered the boat they left Vietnam on and the water they sailed through. 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. In the distance, ducks floated without a single care in the world like they were on vacation.
Ben’s initiation into adolescent romance takes place at a public pool in New Orleans. When he goes to the pool with his friend Addy, he meets Howie, a boy from a nearby town. Ben doesn’t know how to swim, but as he finds his attraction for Howie growing and Howie offers to teach him to swim, they develop a romantic relationship.
Somewhat later, when observing the bayou behind the Versailles, Huong observes that it’s difficult to live somewhere without water. Her new boyfriend Vinh, perhaps referring to Vietnam and the escape by sea, replies, “You can’t live in a place with too much of it, either.”
This fractured family seems more fractured than ever by the time Hurricane Katrina hits during the final pages. The hurricane is of course another water reference—and a deadly one for many—yet perhaps for Huong and her family, it’s finally a time for healing.
Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.