Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
The Mountains Sing tells an enveloping, multigenerational tale of the Trần family, set against the backdrop of the Việt Nam War.
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 apart not just her beloved country, but also her family.
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.
The Mountains Sing is celebrated Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s first novel in English.
The Mountains Sing is a riveting novel about a multi-generational Vietnamese family that survives through the first Indochina War, the Great Hunger, the Great Reform, & the Việt Nam War. It is a story of about survival, the devastation of war, resilience, & humanity. It is hard to describe this book, but a few words that come to mind are powerful & devastating.
Told through dual timelines, The Mountains Sing spans most of the 20th century centering on the current matriarch of the Tran family & her granddaughter. The dual timelines ended up having the same voice although they were two different stories. This is one of the only flaws I found. I chalk this up to the fact that the book is being told by the granddaughter, including the story of her grandmother which was recited to her.
The Mountains Sing reminded me of Pachinko but did not quite pull on my heart strings the same way. I chalk this up to the writing, which was otherwise strong. Now, that is not to say that The Mountains Sing is not a fantastic & important book. I feel privileged to have read this novel that was compiled from real stories of Vietnamese families. The Mountains Sing has driven me to learn more about the Việt Nam War, as we know it, & the experience of the Vietnamese people. Nguyễn has gifted us the a story so often only known from the American side & given it cultural authenticity from those who endured this catastrophic war. I do not want to make it sound like this book is completely about the Việt Nam War, because it is not. It is really the story of those left waiting at home & surviving every day in turbulent times.
Overall, I greatly enjoyed The Mountains Sing, and it really touched me. For me, this book was particularly poignant in the here & now as the U.S. abandons Afghanistan in ruins after 20 years of war. Everyone should read The Mountains Sing to better understand the inherit the trauma of war – on a land, on a culture, & on a people.
The Mountains Sing
March 17, 2020
Note: I received an audio-galley of this book from the publisher, Dreamscape Media & Algonquin Books. Regardless, I always provide a fair and honest review.