Nguyen Phan Que Mai’s debut English-language novel The Mountains Sing is strikingly beautiful. The prose is lyrical while also accessible, weaving stories told by a grandmother and granddaughter into a narrative that is heartbreaking and then reaffirming a hundred times over. This book is a challenging read and may be triggering to some (war, death, abandonment). For readers who are interested in learning more about Vietnam and its history, this is an accessible historical fiction told by an author who grew up in Vietnam.
The Mountains Sing takes place over the past century in Vietnam, taking the reader through essential points in the country’s history. The Great Hunger, Land Revolution, the Vietnam War are the big stories in which the smaller stories of everyday life weave through. We visit the cities of Hanoi, Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), and Nam Dinh and see a family’s fortune change in two short generations. We experience family gains and losses, abandonments, and profound tragedies. I enjoyed the conversational narrative, which brought much-needed levity during heavy subjects (like when grandma Dieu Lan shows granddaughter Huong how to Kick-Poke-Chop to protect herself).
Halfway through the story, Huong, granddaughter and a leading voice in the book, says: “If I had a wish, I would want nothing fancy, just a normal day when all of us could be together as a family; a day where we could just cook, eat, talk, and laugh. I wondered how many people around the world were having such a normal day and didn’t know how special and sacred it was.”
H??ng theorizes about life at the end of the book, which summarizes the themes of The Mountains Sing well: “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 how much light we were able to shed on those we loved and how many people we touched with our compassion.”
Americans, be sure to check your assumptions of Vietnam at the door before you read this book. Read and learn more, beyond what you know about the war, and see the side of the conflict and the country’s history from a writer who was born and grew up there.
Author Nguyen Phan Que Mai stresses the importance of her unique voice as a Vietnam poet and author and states on her blog, “By turning to the first page of The Mountains Sing, you will open the door into an authentic Viet Nam where proverbs are sprinkled throughout daily conversations, where lullabies and poems are sung. You will experience the colors, richness and complexity of our culture, beginning with our Vietnamese names and language, which appear in full diacritical marks…Forty-five years after the war, tremendous progress has been made in terms of reconciliation between Viet Nam and the United States. But the deep wounds that divided our country and families, both at home and in the diaspora, remain profound and painful.”
The Mountains Sing is an all-the-stars, best-book-I-expect-to-read-this-year kind of book. I hope you pick it up and read it too.
Interested in more family sagas that take place across Asia? Be sure to also read Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, a widely-acclaimed multi-generational tale taking place in Korea and Japan.
Thank you to Netgalley and Algonquin Books for a chance to read a complimentary advanced reader’s copy of this book. Opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own.