Books

Nguyen Phan Que Mai
The Mountains Sing

“If our stories survive, we will not die, even when our bodies are no longer here on this earth,” a grandmother tells her granddaughter in The Mountains Sing. This act of storytelling is at the heart of Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s sprawling, multigenerational saga, following two time lines in Vietnam’s tumultuous history.

The first concerns the North Vietnamese land reform, executed by the rising Communist government in 1954 to reclaim and redistribute land owned by the bourgeoisie. This bloody, little-known chapter of Vietnamese history unfolds through the eyes of Trần Diệu Lan, then a young mother of six who flees the family farm to find safety for her children, and encounters unthinkable loss along the way. The second thread of the novel takes place in the 1970s, with the destruction of the Vietnam War on civilian life told by Diệu Lan’s granddaughter Hương, whose parents have left for the front line. These stories mirror one another, showing the cyclical nature of history and the impact of intergenerational trauma.

Bookish Hương devours contraband American literature as a child, and is surprised to see herself in its pages when she has always been taught that Americans are the enemy. For the young girl, fittingly, books are a window into an empathetic mind: “Somehow I was sure that if people were willing to read to each other, and see the light of other cultures, there would be no war on Earth.”

In the Western world, much of the discussion about the Vietnam War centres on American involvement or the diaspora who fled as refugees. Forty-five years after the end of the war, The Mountains Sing presents a unique view of those left behind, showing the damage inflicted on a nation by an ideological promise quickly eclipsed by greed and power. Political differences cause an uneasy friction between members of the central family, but as details are revealed, it is evident that they have a common goal of freedom, while the corrupt government craved control and went to murderous lengths to get it.

This is Nguyễn’s first English-language work and debut novel, and her work as a poet is evident in the way her words dance; there is a fable-like quality to the writing, with Vietnamese customs and proverbs weaving their way through the pages. Good fiction can teach us about the truth of the world, and The Mountains Sing is a timely and moving novel that bears witness to the atrocities of the past, which remain as echoes in the present.

Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen

Oneworld, 352pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 29, 2020 as "Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, The Mountains Sing".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Reviewer: Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen