Historical Fiction

The Mountains Sing

As soon as I heard about this one, I added it to my TBR: an intergenerational saga of a family living through the incredibly turbulent recent history of Vietnam, told by an author inspired by her own family’s stories. Plus, that cover is just straight up gorgeous. The library waitlist was long (which is great for the author, but less so for us poor readers waiting for it! Haha) and only made longer by the three-month COVID-19 closure in the middle of it. But the wait was worth it, both for public health safety reasons and because this novel was absolutely just as stunning inside as out.

The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

“Squatting on the ground, I wrote for a uncle I’d been robbed of, who was a leaf pushed away from its tree, but at its last moment still struggled to fall back to its roots. I wrote for Grandma, who’d hoped for the fire of war to be extinguished, only for its embers to keep burning her. I wrote for my uncles, my aunt, and my parents, who were helpless in the fight of brother against brother, and whose war went on, regardless of whether they were alive, or dead.”

I already sort of gave a synopsis of this one, but let me add a little more detail. The story is narrated from dual points of view. Switching in time from the Great Hunger and Land Reform eras (1930s to the mid-1960s) to the Việt Nam War years (1970s), the story is primarily told and centered around Hương (fondly called Guava by her grandmother) who is living her adolescent years during the war. In alternating chapters, we hear from Hương herself, her experiences living through war and coping with absent and wounded parents/family and general daily fear and unknown, and from her grandmother, Diệu Lan, as she tells Hương the history of their family, the story of where they came from and how they got to Hà Nội.    

There are so many ways to review and reflect on this novel and the story it tells…the human perspective, the historical perspective, the lingual perspective, the cultural perspective, the perspective of underrepresented voices, and more. And for the record, the bottom line to whatever I have to say next is that each of these aspects was moving and spectacular.

Let’s see. First, the writing was absolutely gorgeous. It had a sort of understated essence of poetry to it that just sweeps the reader off their feet in a way so subtle that you may not even notice it’s really happening/happened until you turn the last page. I must have highlighted at least twenty passages (see the end for a sample of those) and each one had me breathing a soft sigh of admiration for both the wording and the messages. And in considering that this is the author’s second language…it’s just breathtaking. I can’t even write like this in English and it’s my mother tongue. Also, I cannot describe how much I loved the Vietnamese liberally included throughout: prayers, songs, dialogue, proverbs. It added so much to this story, especially since I listened to the audiobook while reading and omg the narrator was just perfect – a warm, inflective voice with perfect (I mean, to my ear, so take that for what’s it’s worth) accent and tonality.

Historically, I don’t have much knowledge around this time period, even in my own country. I mean, I am fully aware of the protesting against the Việt Nam War and the terrible way soldiers were treated when they returned, along with some basic knowledge of the horrific tactics used (i.e. Agent Orange). But it’s such a taboo and contentious topic in American history (and too recent to truly be covered in history class), that that’s about it. In fact, I know more about it from reading about the beginning of the Black Feminist movement (How We Get Free) and how those activists got a lot of their political “starts” protesting the war, than from anywhere else. (And really, no wonder there was protesting. Yikes.) So, bearing my general knowledge limitations in mind, this is also, unsurprisingly, the first historical fiction about the time period that I have read from a Vietnamese perspective. Anyways, I learned quite a bit about the 20th century in Việt Nam, both from the experiences of these characters and the research I did on my own as a result. It’s remarkable how challenging (Is that too euphemistic? I want to say traumatic, in reality, but don’t want to reduce it to just that, as there is connection and support to be found in these pages, and in the history, as well.) this century has been on the country and its people – the turmoil both internal and international. The chorus of voices that are given air time in this novel truly show the individual human consequences and impacts of large/world events. The absolutely disparate experiences of Grandmother Diệu Lan’s six children allow for so many versions of the time period to be show and told. Being able to see the variety of experiences, the many different ways the same events played out for people, provided such a priceless insight into the country and the time period. And simultaneously, the commonality of suffering amongst them all, despite their “better” or “worse” outcomes is deeply affecting. The author was able to illustrate the realities of “individuals caught in the crossfire of history,” for both those on the front lines and those “left behind,” in a way that I find I don’t really have words for. Just amazing.

And last, I just want to point out the family aspects of this story. The political and geographical lines that split countries and land also split people and families. Though we can read in news stories and history books about how this played out on a large national/international scale, the author’s nuanced portrayal of the way it affected individuals is brilliant. And the way she weaves throughout it all the threads that still remain, however hidden and frayed, that connect these same people and families despite everything, is similarly brilliant. Every situation is rendered with a tender and understanding look at the complexities and dangers and hopes of each decision, the mental/social/emotional/physical costs of war, with a focus on the “grey areas” of humanity as opposed to the black & white of ideology and government.

There is pain in these pages. Loss and sorrow and ache and trauma. But there are also many moments and lessons of hope and compassion and love and forgiveness (mostly from Grandmother Diệu Lan, whose resilience and openness and *fighting* spirit I wish to emulate) and, even when those reactions feel impossible, there is a message to fight for them, to fight for moving into the future despite the pain of the past. This story crashed in delicate waves of emotion page after page and I was completely drawn into it from start to finish. I believe the Trấn family and their story will stay with me for quite some time.   

A sampling of those many highlighted passages that I mentioned earlier:

“The challenges faced by Vietnamese people throughout history are as tall as the tallest mountains. If you stand too close, you won’t be able to see their peaks. Once you step away from the currents of life, you will have the full view…”

“Yet she had to appear strong, for only those who face battles were entitled to trauma.”

“I didn’t care what war meant. I just wanted it to return my mother to me, give me back my father and my uncles, and make our family whole again.”

“I used to think that we were the ones in charge or our destinies, but I learned then that, in time of war, normal citizens were nothing but leaves that would fall in the thousands or millions in the surge of a single storm.”

“But you’re old enough to know that history will write itself in people’s memories, and as long as those memories live on, we can have faith that we can do better.”

“Sometimes something is so terrible that you need to pretend it doesn’t exist.”

“Around me, rice plants began rustling their tiny, green hands. They were offering me their most soothing rice lullaby. I realized that whenever humans failed us, it was nature who could help save us. I willed myself to be like nature, so I found myself singing, just like the rice plants.”

“Life is great, Guava, because whenever I was put down, there were always kind people who picked me up.”

“Would the ghosts of war ever release us from their grip?”

“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.”

“But I’d rather die that live the life of the unwanted.”

“The turbulent events of our history had not just ripped people apart, they’d imprinted on them a sense of guilt about things over which they had no control.”

4 thoughts on “The Mountains Sing

  1. This sounds amazing, I’ve read a few historical fiction books and really enjoyed them so would love to read more. You sold me explaining how beautiful the writing is, I also love when a book really stays with you after you’ve read it. Added to my tbr 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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