The Mountains Sing, by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

In the United States, there is a very clear narrative about the Vietnam War. We learn about the politicians and their “domino theory,” who took over a colonial war from the French, while a growing anti-war movement works to end the conflict. We learn about soldiers who are sent to die and are then called baby-killers when they come back. Sometimes, we even learn about the long lasting effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and Agent Orange and the Boat People who came to America after the fall of Saigon. Only rarely do we ever learn about the experience of the Vietnamese people, who lived through decades of warfare while decisions about their country’s future are made on other continents. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s novel, The Mountains Sing, is the first time I can recall seeing a full story narrated by Vietnamese people and set completely in Vietnam.

Hương serves as a narrator and audience for The Mountains Sing. She narrates the chapters that see her and her grandmother trying to survive and rebuild after American bombings of Hanoi. Her parents and her uncles are all in the south, fighting the Americans and the South Vietnamese army. In other chapters, Hương listens to her grandmother, Diện Lan, as she relates the family history from 1942 to 1972. Once upon a time, the Trần family were well off. They owned farmland in Nghệ An, southwest of Hanoi. They worked the land with their tenant farmers and life was good…until World War II broke out and the Japanese invaded. Although Diện Lan traces her bad luck to her own fortune (as told to her by a palmist), it almost seems like the universe is out to get all of the Trầns. Over the next two decades, Diện Lan loses her parents, barely survives a famine and the Land Reform—only to see her children scattered across the country during what we call the Vietnam War and the North Vietnamese government call the War of Resistance Against the Americans.

The Mountains Sing and Diện Lan move back and forth through time. We see family members lash out at each other before Diện Lan or Hương’s mother or one of her uncles takes us back through the years to reveal what happened to that family member. So, not only does this novel show westerners a side of history we are woefully uneducated about, The Mountains Sing is also a story of redemption, forgiveness, reunion, and a lot of trauma. I loved that Nguyễn is full of complications. Family members can forgive, but they don’t forget. Other family members show us how the dictates of the government drove wedges between family members. Members of the Trần family frequently have to wrestle with the question of siding with their family or bowing to rules about shunning any kind of capitalism (Diện Lan makes money as a trader instead of “honest” work) or ostracising family members who got fought for South Vietnam.

I have a few tiny quibbles about occasional slapdash scene setting and word choice (the author is weirdly fond of the word exquisite). Truth be told, this book could have been longer. There is so much in this book and so many characters that I wish Nguyễn had settled into the narrative a bit more, so that some parts didn’t feel so rushed and so that the setting could feel more lived-in. These quibbles aside, I was fascinated by The Mountains Sing. I’m so glad to finally have a chance to see this history from the other side, the one we Americans were never really told about. It is incredible what the Trầns—and families like them—lived through.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Old Hanoi, undated postcard (Image via Wikicommons)


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