When a family flees their home for another place—or another country—and starts over, they must make sacrifices. That melancholy sense of loss seeps through the pages of D.C. author Eric Nguyen’s Things We Lost to the Water, about a Vietnamese family of refugees who emigrate to New Orleans after the Vietnam War—except the entire family doesn’t make it. The father is left behind. The pregnant mother, Hương, and her 5-year-old son, Tuân, arrive in Louisiana penniless. Following their journey  from the late 1970s to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the novel tells a story that is melancholy, authentic, and powerful.

This small family has to struggle just to survive. Hương works in a nail salon while her boys attend public school and an elderly neighbor babysits them in their small Vietnamese community after school. Their little apartment is cramped, their food is cheap—ramen and boxed cereals. As the boys get older, Tuân joins a gang and has to prove himself by committing felonies. The younger son, Bình, avoids gangs, but stress takes its toll on the family. Both boys drop out of high school and, while Bình later resumes his education, neither son is on a solid career path.

The novel’s theme is loss—above all, the loss of the father. Their lives are informed by his absence, even Bình’s, who never even met his dad. War and its displacement casts a long shadow over the book. “There was a war, Ben,” Tuân tells his younger brother. “Things go horribly wrong during wars. Even without wars, things go horribly wrong all the time. You pick yourself up, you move on, be glad with what you do have.”  It’s hard for families to plant new roots and grow a new life after enduring such adversity. 

Major events such as wars, hurricanes, and disasters are the inflection points in these characters’ lives. Hương and her children feel helpless during these catastrophes, because circumstances beyond their control are forming their lives, transforming them into shapes they might not choose for themselves. “‘Everything was a mess,’” says Vinh, a car salesman Hương ends up dating. “‘War makes everything a mess. And everyone is guilty of doing something bad. No one came out of it not doing anything bad, even all the good guys. It was a mess.’” War destroys life, and people must try to construct new lives amid the ruins when it’s over.

Yet there is no self-pity in this book. Instead, it presents a clear-eyed assessment of horizons that are limited by a lack of money and by being adrift in a new land. Still, these boys’ fortunes are informed by internal values and resources. As it turns out, there are some crimes Tuân just won’t commit, no matter how much his gang pressures him. When he realizes this, he takes his  first step toward adulthood and independence. Indeed, the next time the reader encounters him, he lives by himself in his own New Orleans apartment and finds work in a restaurant. Unlike Bình, Tuân’s link to his mother never frays. But then again, Tuân knew his father and experienced life in a more typical family unit. Bình is somehow more at sea.

This modern take on social realism shows how money—or the lack of it—affects the novel’s characters. Bình, Tuân and Hương belong to the Vietnamese community of New Orleans, and their experiences are similar to those of their peers. But they also interact with other groups, such as recent Haitian immigrants and wealthy White professionals. While the family’s position in the social hierarchy is not absolutely fixed, it is static enough that it’s hard to imagine Tuân as an affluent doctor or lawyer. It’s not impossible, but it is difficult considering the odds stacked against him. While these characters struggle, work long hours, and adapt to U.S. society, their social limitations become part of the setting. Inside this environment, the family unit is central. Hương’s view is: “The world was cold and wild. A country could collapse. A father could disappear. She would have to protect her sons.” She and her sons are vital to each other, even when the family falls apart. They have each other—even when they don’t.

Things We Lost to the Water. Knopf, 304 pages. $26.95.