“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 more how much light we were able to shed on those we loved and how many people we touched with our compassion.”
– The Mountains Sing
I was in junior high when Saigon fell. I remember little about the Vietnam war, other than that our black and white television droned statistics while I played with my Barbies. I don’t remember knowing anyone directly affected by the fighting, probably because my parents worked hard to insulate me from the ugly side of life. As an adult, I chuckled over Robin Williams’s antics in Good Morning, Vietnam, and despaired over Ron Kovic’s homecoming in Born on the Fourth of July. In his book, The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s experiences as a soldier in the 23rd Infantry Division were frightening. I viewed this conflict strictly through an American lens until I read The Mountains Sing by Vietnamese author and poet, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai. Wow.
The Mountains Sing tells the 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 travel the Hồ Chí Minh Trail to fight in a conflict that tore apart not just her beloved country, but also her family. The novel is narrated in turns by Hương and her grandmother.
Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai was born in a small village in the North of Việt Nam in 1973 and migrated south with her family to the Mekong Delta when she was six years old. She witnessed first hand the war’s devastation and aftermath. She worked as a street seller and rice farmer before winning a scholarship to attend university in Australia and has since earned a master’s in creative writing. A well-known poet, she has also written several novels. The Mountains Sing is her first English-language work of fiction.
The Mountains Sing is a lush, vividly written, and gripping family saga. The author’s words filled my senses; I could see the towering bamboo forests, smell the unwashed bodies, squalor of poverty, and the reek of a land a world away from the newsreels I watched as a young child in the 1960s and 70s.
The author’s lyrical prose elucidated the indomitable human spirit through the voices of two strong women. I appreciated the depiction of the grandmother as a survivor instead of a victim. Few women could have withstood the terrors she did.
This book was emotionally draining from beginning to end, opening with a brutal beheading and ending with the tragic death of another family member. I was hoping for a moment of beauty but there was little more than anguish, hardship, suffering, and death. I never heard the mountains sing.
First there is the Great Hunger of 1944-1945 during which an estimated 1-2 million Vietnamese starved to death. After that readers watch on in horror during the Land Reform (1954-1956) when the property of landowners was redistributed to the poor. About 13,500 landlords and reactionaries were killed. The matriarch of the Tran family spirited her six children out of the North to escape such a fate.
The Vietnam War comprised surprisingly little of the plot, although its consequences were still disturbing—bombings, napalm, Agent Orange-related birth defects, and hand-to-hand combat—neither the Viet Cong nor the Allies were vilified. “What my uncle said made me think. I had resented America, too. But by reading their books, I saw the other side of them—their humanity. Somehow, I was sure that if people were willing to read each other, and see the light of other cultures, there would be no war on earth.”
Although the writing was good, sometimes too much of a good thing is… well… too much. The author covered too many historical events in one work of historical fiction. It was difficult to follow the changing point of view and the split narrative. I listened to the audio version (the narrator was excellent); the book would likely be easier to follow.Since the author is a nonnative English speaker, some idioms and colloquialisms were awkward. This was an ambitious project, and for that and its educational value, I give The Mountains Sing four stars.
The book is full of brutality, despair and pain. Recommended for adult audiences.