We’re Safe When We’re Alone, Nghiem Tran’s new novella, is dreamlike and imaginative, thrusting us into the world of ghosts and memories. Every character is given a familial label instead of a name, such as Son, the young protagonist, who is forced to adjust outside of his isolation and out into this ominous world. The story begins with Father’s change of heart in wanting Son to assimilate with the ghosts and leave the mansion. But before, Father taught Son to fear the outside world and the ghosts, so this change is abrupt for the child, and he faces challenges trying to adapt. As a result of his learned hesitancy towards the world and introverted lifestyle, some of his most prominent character traits are anxious, resentful, and avoidant.
Early on, we find out that Son is extremely well-read, given that he has been isolated in a mansion for his entire life. His anxieties and suspicions of everyone else’s intentions create mystery about what is a tangible fear within the plot and what is a metaphor. He has the tendency to go on philosophical tangents about what it means to be a human in solitude and the meaning of life. It made me question Son’s age and maturity, given that he is said to be only a child. Instances of childlike fear and naivety are battled by intellectual prose and adamant statements about the world (which he, ironically, has not experienced). This feels intentional in how contradictory it is, considering conversations within the story use simpler language, the repetitive use of words such as ‘safe’, ‘alone’, and ‘scared’ (two of three words are in the title, making them easier to pinpoint).
My initial assumptions of what this novella would entail were conversations surrounding the fear of the unknown and unpredictable, and this emotional turmoil is exemplified through its themes. More specifically, we see it in how Father expresses regret for projecting his fear of danger onto his Son, who now sees everything being riddled with danger and refuses to experience things outside of what he knows. It’s an important conversation regarding this fear of change and refusal to take leaps into the unexpected, especially when there is no guarantee you will be able to shelter your loved ones when they are out in the world, making their own decisions. Sheltering Son was Father’s way of protecting him, an act of love, but it also stunted his motivation to seek and explore.
Tran portrays childhood peril and fears of the dark, strangers, and being left alone in innovative and fantastical scenarios that relate to coping with trauma and death. A recurring theme is the need to move forward, even when things seem impossible to handle, and it is reflected through Son’s difficulty breaking out of isolation and the narrative surrounding grief and blocking memories.
There are various questions up in the air that itch for answers throughout the story; what Father’s role in the ghost world is, why he wants Son to embrace his community, the reasons for them being there, and if the ghosts are as ill-intentioned as Son believes. It is difficult to break down the novella without giving away important plot points, because one of the best parts about reading We’re Safe When We’re Alone is the imaginative turns the story takes through idioms and metaphors. What I can say is that it had poignant moments of father-son relationships, life-changing decisions, and a grappling with responsibility that amounted to emotional discoveries.
Tran’s writing style is simultaneously poetic and curt in his depictions of the environment, internal monologue, and fantasy. There’s a cryptic quality to the action involving the ghosts and dark figures, as well as in the worldbuilding. While reading, I thought of its likeness to a folktale. Dark and uncanny, the atmosphere is akin to a Southern Gothic, with rolling hills/fields shrouded by shadows, dark churches, looming figures in the distance, and isolated mansions.
The’ use of verbal irony is prominent, being that there’s a strong need for control and knowledge where the circumstances do not allow; Son being forced out of his mansion to explore, a character being chained down for their own safety with a key in reach, the irreversible passage of time, an accumulation of good and bad memories that shape lived experience and follow into death. There are also moments where the literal and figurative are morphed together, such as how he and everyone else in this world have no memories of their lives in the world of the living. In turn, their memories become something visceral and sacred, taking on bodies and shapes of their own.
Son’s fear of losing Father or disappointing him is crushing and unmistakable, but his apathy towards everyone else makes his character jarring and unsettling at times. A recurring theme is his repulsion towards the ghosts. Not only is he reassessing his safety in solitude, but he is also continuously repulsed by his community members. He distances himself from their likeness as humans, and it’s his journey in unlearning ignorance and his exposure to them that we follow throughout the novella. Finding the humanity within Son as he learns the importance of empathizing with people outside of his immediate family. We can understand his apprehension in situations, especially when the peculiar supernatural elements come into play, but there is also room to assess how his resentment and fear has shaped him.
It is haunting, mournful, and thought-provoking. Tran’s debut novella puts us inside the mind of a child whose world revolves around the safety and trust that he puts into his father. It expresses the anxieties and fears that come with love, trust, loss, and the unknown. At its root, We’re Safe When We’re Alone tells an intimate tale of unconditional love and loss in the midst of unforeseen and fantastical circumstances.
We’re Safe When We’re Alone
By Nghiem Tran
Coffee House Press
Published September 19, 2023
Sammy Loree is a writer and artist from Michigan. She graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a bachelor's degree in Creative Writing.