Title/Author: The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
Publisher: Algonquin Books
In a nutshell (Publisher):
With the epic sweep of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko or Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and the lyrical beauty of Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan, The Mountains Sing tells an enveloping, multigenerational tale of the Tran family, set against the backdrop of the Viet Nam War. Tran Dieu Lan, who was born in 1920, was forced to flee her family farm with her six children during the Land Reform as the Communist government rose in the North. Years later in Hà Noi, her young granddaughter, Hương, comes of age as her parents and uncles head off down the Ho Chí Minh Trail to fight in a conflict that will tear not just her beloved country but her family apart.
Vivid, gripping, and steeped in the language and traditions of Viet Nam, The Mountains Sing brings to life the human costs of this conflict from the point of view of the Vietnamese people themselves, while showing us the true power of kindness and hope. This is celebrated Vietnamese poet Nguyen Phan Que Mai’s first novel in English.
My verdict: An utterly heartbreaking story about family, war, love and loss.
“Does it have a name, Uncle?” I brought the bird to my face. It smelled like my father, like his laughter.
“A splendid name.” Grandma smiled at me. “Son ca means ‘The Mountain Sings.’”The Mountains Sing, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
Going into this book I didn’t know what to expect. I was just drawn to its gorgeous cover and backstory. And my, was I in for a heartbreaking, harrowing journey. This book should come with a box of tissues.
The Mountains Sing is a mesmerizing family saga, covering four generations, that’s centered around the Great Famine, the Land Reform and the Vietnam War, told from the perspectives of Hương and her Grandma Diệu Lan. Diệu Lan was brought up in a wealthy farming family, The Trấn, in Nghe An Province. (Here’s a an overview of what happened in Vietnam during those years)
The book opened with Hương’s story, 12 years old then, in 1972, when Hanoi was bombed by the Americans, and Hương and Grandma Diệu Lan had to flee their home and walk to a village 41 km away to find shelter. When Hương and her grandmother returned from the village, they found their home decimated and covered in debris. To build a makeshift home, bang branches were hammered down into earth to be used a tent pole and a plastic sheet was used as a roof.
Their lives improved after Grandma Diệu Lan quit her job as a teacher and got into the trading business. As a socialist country, trading was considered illegal but it was the only way to survive the war. With her savings, they afforded themselves a home big enough for the both of them and Huong’s parents and uncles, should they return. In the final third of the book, Hương fell in love as she turned into a young adult and her love story had quite an unexpected turn of event.
This novel was based on true stories from people who had experienced it and stories from the author’s own family, and it broke my heart. The Great Famine of 1945 killed two million of their countrymen and robbed them of all their food, and the Japanese made the villagers uproot their rice and crops to grow jute and cotton for them. Grandma Diệu Lan described ‘the hunger was a python that squeezed our energy, until there was nothing left of us except skin and bones.’ She lost both her parents in the Great Famine; her father beheaded by the Japanese and her mother killed by one of the villagers. The Land Reform turned the farmers against one another, then the Vietnam War tore her family apart.
‘The Mountains Sing’ helped me see was how the invading powers of Vietnam not only destroyed the country, but also made the people pit against one another, blurring the lines between traitors and patriots who existed in the same family. Huong wisely opined, ‘Wars have the power to turn graceful and cultured people into monsters.’
Hương could hardly recognize her mother whom, to her, had turned into a ‘horrible person’ after returning from the war; Grandma Diệu Lan’s son, Uncle Sáng, accused Diệu Lan of being a traitor for trading in the black market and wanted to have nothing to do with her; and Uncle Minh wanted to avenge the death of his father and uncle, so he fought for the South. Uncle Đạt hated the Americans and the allies, but after seeing young innocent civilians being killed by his own people, he just ‘hated the war.’
Despite all that, the family forged forward. They persevered and prevailed. And their family history was preserved through Grandma Diệu Lan’s stories. Her stories and experiences taught Hương more than she could ever learn through her schoolbooks, as Grandma Diệu Lan said, ‘…you won’t find anything about the Land Reform not about the internal fighting of Viet Minh. A part of our country’s history has been erased, together with the lives of countless people.’
This is one of the most intimate novels on war I’ve ever read, so much so it almost read like an autobiography. And its lyrical prose brought to life Vietnam’s rich, beautiful culture, traditions and nature. Like a love letter to her home country, the author wrote of the “…clouds of purple flowers blooming on xoan trees and at red gao flowers sailing through the air like burning boats”, the comforting and wise Vietnamese proverbs that pulled them through tough times, Mother Nature that saved them when humans failed them, and those mentions of the delicious traditional dishes such as the phở noodle soup, flavorful bánh cuốn (in Chinese we call them chee chong fun), savory bánh chưng (we Chinese have it too, called ‘chung’ but shaped in a triangular form with pretty much similar ingredients), all in celebration of everything that is of Vietnam.
I believe this was a very difficult novel to write, given the complicated, complex history of what happened to and in Vietnam, also the fact that this is still a sensitive issue to talk about today with the people who had experienced it. But the novel was not only well-researched, it had great pacing and plot, and was absolutely heartfelt.
‘The Mountains Sing’ is an engrossing story about a family who had suffered and triumphed despite it all. It’s also a novel with an urgent call for peace and humanity. The world more divided than ever, this is a reminder that, ‘Love is all you need.’Tweet
If this intrigues you, do also check out ‘Unbound: A Tale of Love and Betrayal in Shanghai‘!
Sarah’s question (in the comments below), led me to search for some book club questions. Click here if you’re interested 🙂
And here’s a recent zoom interview the author had done recently!
Have you read ‘The Mountains Sing’? What did you think? If you haven’t, do you intend to? Please share with me your thoughts!