Tuesday, 18 August 2020

The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai
First published in the USA by Algonquin on the 17th March 2020. Published in the UK by OneWorld Publications on the 20th August 2020.

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Set against the backdrop of the Việt Nam War, The Mountains Sing is the enveloping, multi-generational tale of the Trần family, perfect for fans of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko or Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing.

Hà Nội, 1972. Hương and her grandmother, Trần Diệu Lan, cling to one another in their improvised shelter as American bombs fall around them. Her father and mother have already left to fight in a war that is tearing not just her country but her family apart. For Trần Diệu Lan, forced to flee the family farm with her six children decades earlier as the Communist government rose to power in the North, this experience is horribly familiar. Seen through the eyes of these two unforgettable women, The Mountains Sing captures their defiance and determination, hope and unexpected joy.

Vivid, gripping, and steeped in the language and traditions of Việt Nam, celebrated Vietnamese poet Nguyễn's richly lyrical debut weaves between the lives of grandmother and granddaughter to paint a unique picture of the country's turbulent twentieth-century history. This is the story of a people pushed to breaking point, and a family who refuse to give in.

I was fortunate to recently read a Vietnamese memoir, American Dreamer by Tim Tran, which touched upon some of the country's history that Nguyen Phan Que Mai so eloquently portrays throughout her novel The Mountains Sing. This story of three generations, forced apart by events completely out of their control, is quite the sweeping epic, yet I was drawn in by little details of daily life. Nguyen frequently has her characters quoting Vietnamese proverbs and I liked this device for allowing readers to get closer to Huong, her stalwart grandmother Dieu Lan, and the rest of the family. Huong's parents are absent, physically or psychologically, for much of the story so instead we have the relationship between grandparent and grandchild at the heart of the book.

Dieu Lan is an amazing woman, but one who isn't convinced of her strength. I loved spending time effectively eavesdropping on her telling Huong her memories and I am in awe of the presence of mind she showed in preserving as many of her family members as she could across decades of violent turmoil. Vietnam to Western minds primarily conjures up horrific images of the Vietnam War, but the country was also ravaged by the Second World War, the partition of the country, and the Communist Party's brutal Land Reform programme. The Mountains Sing doesn't flinch from showing what ordinary Vietnamese people endured at the hands of foreign armies or from other politically manipulated citizens. Scenes of people persuaded to murderously turn on each other due to greed or fear are heartbreaking to read, especially when the result is formerly strong, supportive communities being left broken and poverty-stricken.

The Mountains Sing is a beautiful story of a particularly turbulent period of Asian history. I appreciated the point of view changes which enable readers to witness first-hand the repeated waves of destruction that swept across Vietnam and the effects of this that lingered long after. Nguyen sensitively depicts not just the physical injuries that people must learn to live with, but also the long term psychological damage which scarred several generations. Even for a 'lucky' family such as Dieu Lan's who mostly survive, the price is unbearably high.

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Books by Nguyen Phan Que Mai / Historical fiction / Books from Vietnam

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