The Mountains Sing
by Nguyen Phan Que Mai
Published by: Algonquin Books
Publish Date: 2020
Genre(s): Historical Fiction, Women’s Fiction, Motherhood, Viet Nam, Family Saga, Coming of Age
HB&W Rating: 5
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Triggers: War, Rape, Poverty, Death of Loved Ones, Dismemberment
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, Huong, 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.
Synopsis source: Goodreads
Somehow I was sure that if people were willing to read each other, and see the light of other cultures, there would be no war on earth.
This book is everything I love about historical fiction. It takes a part of history, offers an untold perspective, and tells a tale that is both evocative and relatable. And like Huong says above, reading about other cultures and places helps open our minds to see the humanity and the good of people who would otherwise remain distant to us.
We’re forbidden to talk about events that relate to past mistakes or the wrongdoing of those in power, for they give themselves the right to rewrite history. But you’re old enough to know that history will write itself in people’s memories, and as long as those memories live on, we can have faith that we can do better.
I have to admit that before reading this book, I really didn’t know much about the Viet Nam war. I knew that it wasn’t taught in school. I know that when I ask my parents and their contemporaries about it, it’s always a quick and evasive response. I know that it was horrifying for many different reasons, what war isn’t? But why did we go to war there? What are the American history books not telling me?
It was these questions and a lack of straight answers to them that made me want to pick this book up when I first read the synopsis. Offering two timelines, one starting before WWII and the other starting during the Viet Nam war, and told from the perspective of a woman and her granddaughter living in northern Viet Nam, this book taught me so much about what it was like to live in Viet Nam back then. It touches upon the Great Hunger and the Land Reform, which both likely contributed to the ease with which communism took over northern Viet Nam, sparking the war. But what this book does so well is show us that even in these darkest of times, there is still good in the world and in people.
Human lives were short and fragile. Time and illnesses consumed us, like flames burning away these pieces of wood. But it didn’t matter how long or short we lived. It mattered more how much light we were able to shed on those we loved and how many people we touched with our compassion.
This book often reminded me of The Henna Artist, not so much in the plot so much as the vivid imagery the author used for her setting, the two main storytellers, Dieu Lan and her granddaughter Huong, who reminded me so much of Lakshmi and Radha, and even a sprinkling of proverbs throughout the story. I had a few favorites:
Fire proves gold, adversity proves men.
If you bear grudges, you’re the one who’ll have to bear the burden of sorrow.
Stubborn as a sideways-walking crab
Okay, that last one wasn’t a proverb, just an expression, but it made me smile. I’m stubborn, like my mom, and my kids are stubborn like me and the context from which it was taken just struck my funny bone.
With beautiful prose and so much wisdom, The Mountains Sing is both a coming of age story and family saga that reminds us of the importance of love, empathy, and forgiveness. If you loved The Henna Artist and have been looking for another book with the same vivid imagery, strong female characters, and history from other countries’ perspective, then this book should definitely be added to your TBR.
Until next time, happy reading!
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