June Book Review: 'The Mountains Sing'

Jun 9, 2020

A new novel is a heartfelt inquiry into Viet Nam’s complex and brutal past. It follows one family’s heartache and healing that spans decades. Dan Compton has this month’s book review of The Mountains Sing.

The Mountains Sing is the first novel in English by award-winning poet Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai. The novel is a multigenerational saga that describes Viet Nam’s painful 20th century history. The story centers around Grandma Diệu Lan and her granddaughter Hương. Throughout the novel Diệu Lan shares her life experiences with her granddaughter and we’re able to learn a lot of Vietnamese history that isn’t covered in our school textbooks.

We learn of the great hunger of 1945 in which it is believed around two million Vietnamese people died. We learn of the Viet Minh government’s brutal land reform of the 1950s when many innocent landowners were forced to flee their family farms. We get a glimpse into the varying, complex perspectives of the North Vietnamese during the Viet Nam War, something not often seen in today’s literature. We see the horrors of the bombing of Ha Noi and its aftermath. Finally, we learn the experiences of Diệu Lan’s sons and daughters fighting in the war and how they can never really be the same people afterwards.

While this novel is certainly heart wrenching in parts, it is also a testament to the power of familial bonds and the resilience of normal people who are subjected to unforeseen tragedies. This novel could not be more timely as the world is currently suffering through the Covid-19 pandemic.

Quế Mai writes beautiful, lyrical prose and clearly writes with a poet’s touch. It’s all the more impressive considering she has written this in her second language. Vietnamese proverbs are scattered throughout the text and the descriptions of the country can be breathtaking at times.

This book’s release date came right in the aftermath of most of the country shutting down due to Covid-19. I hope that despite this it’s reach can be vast. It’s a book that we could all use right now and I highly recommend this for fans of historical fiction and multigenerational family tales such as Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing.

The Mountains Sing can be found in our local libraries. For KPCW this is Dan Compton with the Summit County Library.