An epistolary novel, it is written in the form of a letter from a Vietnamese American son to his illiterate mother.
The novel is written in the form of a letter by a young Vietnamese American nicknamed Little Dog, whose life mirrors that of Ocean Vuong. The letter is written to Little Dog’s mother Hong, more often called or translated as Rose (hồng). The novel has a nonlinear narrative structure.
The novel also recounts the life of Little Dog’s grandmother, Lan, who escapes an arranged marriage during the Vietnam War and becomes a prostitute. She marries a white American soldier and gives birth to a child, although the father of the child is another man, as Lan was four months pregnant when she met the man who would become her husband. The child is Little Dog’s mother, Rose. She is barely literate, having left school at the age of five when her schoolhouse in Vietnam collapsed during an American napalm raid. She suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder as a result. Rose marries an abusive man but eventually separates from him.