Home 5 Articles and Reports 5 The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai: Book Review

The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai: Book Review

by | Jun 25, 2024 | Articles and Reports

The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai: Book Review

The Mountains Sing tells the story of the Vietnam War through the perspective of three generations of a relatively wealthy Vietnamese family living in the North. Although it touches on the occupation of the country by the French and the Japanese, the bulk of the novel is focused on the rise of Communism and the splitting of Vietnam between a US-backed South and a Communist-backed North. The novel is narrated in alternate chapters by Diệu Lan, who relates her experience of the Land Reform of the mid-1950s, and her granddaughter Hương, who grows up in the 1970s as the US withdraw from Vietnam but fighting continues.

Diệu Lan is the family matriarch — bereft of father, husband, brother, and eldest son due to war and occupation, she weathers historical changes and economic hardship with self-reliance, intelligence, creativity, and kindness. Born in the same province as revolutionary leader Hồ Chí Minh, Diệu Lan’s actions reflect her own idea of independence. During the era before Vietnam’s economic reforms of the 1980s, she becomes a black marketeer to improve her family and community living conditions. She introduces contraband American literature to her granddaughter, hoping to broaden Hương’s intellectual horizons, and shows unwavering love to a son who fought in the pro-American South Vietnamese Army.

The novel begins urgently with a scene of Hà Nội being bombed by Americans and a young Hương and her grandmother searching for shelter. There’s a “thundering noise” and “explosions ring from afar” as a voice blares a warning from loudspeakers: “Attention citizens! American bombers are approaching Hà Nội. One hundred kilometers away!” The two race frantically for safety and eventually find it, but the incident is one that reminds Hương that there’s a war going on—a war she doesn’t quite understand beyond the fact that it has torn her family apart. Her father, Hoàng, has “traveled deep into the jungles with his troops and hadn’t sent back any news for the past four years” while her mother, Ngọc, has volunteered as a doctor to go south to look for him. When her mother does finally return, Hương has to learn how to grapple with the devastating consequences of war. The lives in The Mountains Sing are filled with violent challenges and Nguyễn writes vividly with profound psychological insight. “Wars have the power to turn graceful and cultured people into monsters,” Diệu Lan observes and indeed the woeful, transformative power of war is laid bare on these pages.

There are “fountains of blood” as Diệu Lan’s father is beheaded by a Japanese soldier. Under Japanese occupation, villagers are made to uproot their rice crops to grow non-edible plants like jute and cotton, causing a famine. Leaving the house in search of food, Diệu Lan encounters “a rotting corpse [laying] face down on the dirt road” and “[a] little bit further on, the body of a mother embraced her baby in their death.” And when the Land Reform comes, a policy where “[l]andless farmers are encouraged to rise against rich landowners,” Diệu Lan is forced to flee with her five children, walking 300 kilometers. The psychological trauma is just as difficult. Nguyễn depicts emotional wounds and the resulting shifting familial dynamics with heartbreaking clarity. During her escape, Diệu Lan is forced to abandon her children one by one with the promise to return as soon as she can. It’s a decision that angers her daughter Ngọc, who holds a grudge well into adulthood: “You left us behind when running away from your goddamn village, remember?” she attacks Diệu Lan after coming home. Intergenerational misunderstandings and disappointment show up again later when Hương realises how her mother has changed from a loving, optimistic woman, to an emotionally unstable, reticent war veteran. “I didn’t want to look at her, nor pity her. Where had my strong and determined mother gone?” she asks. Reading her mother’s diary, which reveals secrets of what happened to Ngọc and what she’s done in combat zones, Hương sees her mother as a stranger and feels betrayed.

Nguyễn writes of Vietnamese history with such understanding and humanity that one can easily argue for The Mountains Sing’s status as the great Vietnamese novel of our time. There is a sure love for Vietnam’s culture and its people in these pages. In telling her story, Diệu Lan peppers in Vietnamese proverbs and the text is a celebration of what Hương calls “the essence of our ancestors’ wisdom.” That her characters are also survivors of such horrid happenings is a testament to the country’s strength. At the same time, Nguyễn is critical of past policies, such as the Land Reform and propaganda in schools.

“In your schoolbooks,” Diệu Lan tells Hương, “you won’t find anything about the Land Reform nor about the internal fighting of the Việt Minh. A part of our country’s history has been erased, together with the lives of countless people. We’re forbidden to talk about events that relate to past mistakes or the wrongdoing of those in power.”

Amid the sadness, Huong finds love with a school-mate, Tam, and the pair plan to marry. An unexpected twist causes the wedding to be abandoned temporarily but, shortly afterwards, circumstances change and the families are reconciled. The novel ends with Tam, Huong and their children honouring Dieu Lan by burning a manuscript of their shared story at her grave so she can read the words in heaven.

The Mountain Sing is a must read regardless if you are interested or not in the history of Vietnam, it is a story of how wars rips through not only the country or political system but rips deep into society’s morals and values, and tears family and friends apart, it is a book that will seem relevant to anyone that has experienced wars and will leave long lasting impression. We have given it 10/10.

The Mountains Sing is published by Algonquin Books

          

Quotes:

We are like the seeds waiting silently in the earth for the sun to shine, soon we will grow and blossom.

The human heart is capable of withstanding great suffering, but it can also harbor incredible strength and resilience.

Our ancestors may be gone, but their spirits live on in the land, the wind, and the stories we tell.

Sometimes the greatest acts of bravery are the quietest ones, performed without fanfare or recognition.

War destroys more than just cities and homes; it tears apart the very fabric of our humanity.

There is strength in embracing our roots, in remembering where we come from and honoring those who came before us.

It is through storytelling that we preserve our history, pass on our traditions, and inspire future generations.

Fear may be a natural response, but it is bravery that allows us to overcome it and stand up for what is right.

The land holds the memories of those who have lived and loved upon it, and it bears witness to our struggles and triumphs.

Courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to carry on despite it, to find strength in the midst of chaos.

To protect our heritage and culture is to safeguard our identity and the spirit of our people.

The mountains sing their ancient songs, whispering tales of resilience, survival, and the indomitable spirit of the human race.

 

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