The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai is one of the best books I’ve read in a while.
I listened to the audiobook. It is beautifully narrated by Quyen Ngo. Vietnamese sayings and songs come alive and make it more personal. If you’ve never tried audio books before, I highly recommend you start with this one.
Nguyễn is a celebrated Vietnamese poet, and this is her first novel in English. Not surprisingly, her words flow like poetry. The theme of the story is not a happy one – wars and the devastation they leave behind.
We follow the Tran family across generations, as narrated by a young girl, Huong and her grandmother, Dieu Lan. We meet their families, friends, and oppressors through them.
The story spans Vietnamese history from the French colonial period, Japanese occupation, the famine of 1945, the rise of communism and the Vietnam War, and the present day consequences of that turbulent history. Written by someone who’s lived through some of it, the voice and content is authentic.
“Both my grandmothers had died before my birth and I wanted to have a grandma who would sing me lullabies, tell me the legends and tales of my village, as well as teach me what I needed to know about my family’s history…Huong embodies my own experiences growing up in Vietnam and witnessing the war’s devastating effect. But more than that, she represents a generation of Vietnamese who have no choice but to inherit the trauma of war brought home by returning soldiers.”– Dr Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
Throughout the book, we come across the human cost of conflicts. While we come to realise how some people are self-serving, we also see the true power of kindness and hope.
The long lasting socio-psychological consequences of the Vietnam War and all the trauma of political crisis before and after it paint a picture of fractured communities and families. The distrust it sows in people makes them insecure enough to just look out for themselves at the cost of their friends and neighbours. Dieu Lan’s own family is conflicted in their thoughts and actions.
“I realised that war was monstrous. If it didn’t kill those it touched, it took away a piece of their souls, so they could never be whole again.”
Through Dieu Lan’s reminiscing, we come to know of her childhood. From being the daughter of rich land-owning farmers, to a hunted person and a social pariah, she has withstood it all with grace and strength. Her having to be separated from her children is heart-breaking to read about.
“Being a mother is never easy… It’s about failing, learning, and then failing again.”
Even through conflict, the message is never about hate. The author keeps reminding us that kindness and forgiveness will keep us sane. Anger and hate will only consume you and make you more miserable.
“If you bear grudges, you’re the one who’ll have to bear the burden of sorrow.”
As Huong waits for her parents and uncles to return from war, she navigates life as a teenager. She is an outcast because of her grandmother’s job as a trader which government propaganda has deemed evil. Books are her only escape. Huong reads contraband American novels, supplied by her grandmother, and learns at a young age that not all Americans are bad.
“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.”
Huong sees first hand how people returning from the war have returned only physically. In their minds, they are still dealing with the war. Many are able to move on after a while, but for some, the war stays with them all their lives.
The book takes you through a series of emotions. Vietnamese sayings and lullabies add more meaning to the story. It is also such a relevant book for our times.
The ending of the book is so unexpected but also brings us full circle emphasizing how life will continue to throw curve balls at you, it’s your choice how you deal with them.
“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.”
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Sounds like a wonderfully bittersweet tale! You had me at “Vietnamese lullabies.” I’m sure it would be a great read.
The lullabies came alive in the audiobook. I would’ve skipped it while reading. It was very well written and presented
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