The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
Published by Algonquin Books
Publication date: March 17, 2020
Genres: Book Clubs, Cultural, Debut, Fiction, Historical
If our stories survive, we will not die, even when our bodies are no longer here on this earth.
Hương and her grandmother live alone in Hanoi until they are told to evacuate and move to a remote mountain village for their safety. It’s the 1970s and the midst of the Vietnam War. Hương’s parents and her six aunts and uncles are fighting for North Vietnam. Her grandmother hasn’t seen some of her children in almost twenty years after they were chased off their land in the North by the Communists. This is the scene set in Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s The Mountains Sing, an affecting and lush novel of Vietnam.
Nguyễn splits The Mountains Sing between Hương and her grandmother, Dieu Lan—a woman born to a wealthy farming family in 1920 in North Vietnam. She is educated, happily marries, has her children, survives the great famine in 1945, and even the horrific land reform of the 1950s when South was separated from the North and the Communists began to take hold in the country. It is the Vietnam War that is the hardest to bear as each of her remaining children goes off to fight. And yet, she doesn’t wallow in her losses, instead doing whatever is necessary to keep her granddaughter safe and alive.
Born in 1960, Hương has no memories of life without war. When she is only eight years old her father leaves with two of her uncles to join the North Vietnamese Army. Four years later her mother, a doctor, goes to find him. As she enters her teen years her grandmother is all she has. When the war ends in 1975 they both await the return of their loved ones. What they cannot know is who is still alive and even if they are, what the war has done to them.
The turbulent events of our history had not jus tripped people apart, they’d imprinted on them a sense of guilt about things over which they had no control.
In The Mountains Sing Nguyen weaves a tale that is revelatory and haunting. The personal struggles of Dieu Lan, as they play out against the tortured history of a beautiful country, makes for surreal reading. She layers the intimacy of family relationships with facts that seem impossible but are all too real: an estimated one million people dying during the country’s Great Famine, seven million tons of bombs dropped by America during the war. At the same time, she bridges the cultural divide with human experiences that resonate no matter where you live—soldiers returning from war broken physically and mentally, families separated by political lines, the despair of a mother losing her child. It would be too much, except for the threads of resilience, unexpected kindness, and love that run alongside the darker narrative. It all comes together for an immersive reading experience and a journey I’d recommend taking.
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