Publisher: Algonquin Books
Published: March 2020
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 Trần family, set against the backdrop of the Việt Nam War. Trần Diệu 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 Nội, her young granddaughter, Hương, comes of age as her parents and uncles head off down the Hồ Chí Minh Trail to fight in a conflict that tore not just her beloved country, but her family apart.
Vivid, gripping, and steeped in the language and traditions of Việt 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.
Think Vietnam, and what comes to your mind is the epic disaster by the Americans. But Vietnamese had been fighting intruders long before that. First the French, then the Japanese. It also had to fight an internal war from the Great Hunger to the Land Reform.
While it conjures up pictures of soldiers, the real victims of war are civilians. People trying to survive, caught between two warring factions. Vietnamese history is colored with blood.
The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai is a vivid and gripping account of Vietnam’s 20th century history. Narrated in the first person (a grandmother and a granddaughter) across two timelines, the book explores events from the 1920s to the 2010s. The writing is lyrical and descriptive, instantly pulling you in and transporting you to the paddy fields of Vietnam.
“A part of our country’s history has been erased, together with the lives of countless people. We’re forbidden to talk about events that relate to past mistakes or the wrongdoings of those in power, for they give themselves the right to rewrite history. ”
Trần Diệu Lan is the grandmother born in 1920 who is forced to flee with her children when the Communist government’s Land Reform policy practically destroys her family. A tenacious woman, her story is gripping.
Hương is the granddaughter born in times of the Vietnam war. It is a coming of age story where the young girl raised pertinent questions about humanity and hatred.
The book also explores the lives of Trần Diệu Lan’s six children. Most of them soldiers who fought the Vietnam war, it is a gripping account of the human side of the war. It is peppered with Vietnamese proverbs that made it an interesting read. It also explores the rich culture and traditions.
The book is heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time. It is a book that overwhelms you with the vivid details of war and trauma. But at the same time, you cannot stop turning the pages amazed by the grit and determination of Diệu Lan.
“Sometimes something is so terrible that you need to pretend it doesn’t exist”
The Mountains Sing is an important book. It speaks about the human side of war and conflict. It speaks of chemical warfare (the infamous Agent Orange) that continues to have its damaging impact. It speaks of politics and reckless decisions. At the same time, it also speaks of humanity in adverse times. It speaks of hope and the will to survive.
I cannot recommend the book enough. It is definitely one of my favorite books of the year. If you loved Pachinko, you should definitely pick this one up. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s debut novel in English is not to be missed.
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The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai is available for purchase at Amazon.
About the author
Born into the Viet Nam War in 1973, Nguyen Phan Que Mai grew up witnessing the war’s devastation and its aftermath. She worked as a street seller and rice farmer before winning a scholarship to attend university in Australia. The author of eight books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction published in Vietnamese, her writing has been translated and published in more than 10 countries, most recently in Norton’s Inheriting the War anthology. She has been honored with many awards, including the Poetry of the Year 2010 Award from the Ha Noi Writers Association, as well as many grants and fellowships. Married to a European diplomat, Que Mai is currently living in Jakarta with her two teenage children. For more information about Nguyen Phan Que Mai, visit her website.
I would like to thank Algonquin Books for providing a digital copy of the book for the blog tour. All opinions are my own.
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