I host a book club at my library which was started last year during the first few months of the pandemic. At the time, the books we read were mostly mysteries or whatever books we were able to get our hands on easily while in quarantine. With the start of the new year, I took the opportunity to really think about a theme for the year. With everything going on in the world and in an effort to introduce different books and authors to my community, I chose the theme of ownvoices. The first book I chose was Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai first English novel, “The Mountains Sing.” While historical fiction is a genre I don’t normally gravitate towards, I’m so glad I decided to read this book. Not only is it a phenomenal book and taught me things I never knew about the Vietnam War, it also led to a fantastic discussion and I would highly recommend it to all readers.
From Goodreads: The Mountains Sing tells an enveloping, multigenerational tale of the Tran family, set against the backdrop of the Viet Nam War. Tran Dieu 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 Noi, her young granddaughter, Hương, comes of age as her parents and uncles head off down the Ho Chí Minh Trail to fight in a conflict that will tear not just her beloved country but her family apart.
It might sound strange to call a book about war beautiful but that’s the first word that comes to mind when thinking about this novel. The writing was gorgeous, and I found myself stopping to write down several quotes and passages while reading so I could revisit them later. Mai is a talented writer and has the talent to take some of the most violent, upsetting moments and make them compelling and human in a way that few writers can do. When the novel isn’t focused on horrible moments, she is able to perfectly capture the intricacies of familial relationships, especially those between mothers and daughters. This is what I loved most about this book and what I found the most heartbreaking. While the story is told from the perspective of Tran Dieu Lan and Hương, and I loved their stories and experiences, it was the character of Ngoc, Hương’s mother that really stuck with me. Her emotional arc, from her experiences during the war, to her recovery after, really struck me as a part of history that is forgotten or not talked about. We often think about and focus on the emotional impact of the war on the young men who fought but I can’t remember hearing much about the impact on the women who were also on the battlefield. Ngoc’s story resonated with me in a way I didn’t expect, and I will remember her character for a while.
This is not an easy book to read and there are several times I gasped due to the horrors I was reading but this was to be expected in a book about the Vietnam War. What I did not expect was to learn about things that I had never heard about before. There is a section of the book that focuses on the Tran family’s experience with the Land Reform in the 1950’s, something that was never taught in any of the classes I had where we learned about the war. It was equally frustrating and fascinating to learn about this now when I never learned about this before. I think one of the best compliments you can pay an author is wanting to learn more about something they write about and that is now what I want to do.
I really enjoyed this book more than I thought I would, and I think that’s a testament to Mai’s incredible writing and the emotional connection she has to the material. While the market seems to be saturated with World War 2 historical fiction, there isn’t a lot about the Vietnam War, especially written from the perspective of the Vietnamese. This is a wonderful, heartbreaking story that I highly recommend.
Favorite Quote: “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.”
Author: Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
Published: March 17, 2020
Rating: 5 Stars