English language works featuring Vietnam, both fiction and non-fiction has been dominated by mainly (white) male American and soldiers’ voices. While there is nothing wrong with that, it was refreshing to read a story from told from the perspective of Vietnamese women for once. In Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s The Mountains Sing the two voices that narrate the book are Diệu Lan the matriarch of the Trần and her granddaughter, Hương who is only twelve at the start of the book. Both stories are of love and loss and heartbreak, and every member of the Trần family at one point or another undergoes considerable hardships. However, it is through Diệu Lan and her children that we get a glimpse at just how indomitable the spirit of the Vietnamese people are and just how resilient they can be.
At first reading, it was difficult for me to tell Diệu Lan and Hương’s chapters apart, as their voices sounded so similar. I often had to look at the dates that marked the chapters to see who’s chapter it was. However, as I became more familiar with both women I was able to recognize who’s turn it was. Diệu Lan’s story starts during the French and Japanese occupations of Vietnam and carries on through the Great Hunger, and the Land Reform and eventually through to the Vietnam War while Hương is born before the Vietnam War but ends up losing her father to the War. In the present day, Hương’s story shows us the aftermath of all the repeated trauma as well as lasting consequences of the country and its effects on the Vietnamese people and their families. Families were often separated and torn apart as a result of differing ideologies or their past actions and forgiveness is definitely easier said than done. Of the two, I was more interested in Hương’s story as she was closer to my age and I was more familiar with her Vietnam than the Vietnam that her grandmother talked about.
Interestingly, The Mountains Sing is one of the rare English language books set in Vietnam that isn’t a war book. However, it still is a difficult read at times due to the time period both Diệu Lan and Hương are living in. That being said the story was very gripping and the prose is lovely and lyrical as expected of a poet. I also loved the style of the book as it was the retelling of the history of Vietnam through the personal memories of both a grandmother and her grand-daughter. The conversational manner of the book made it easier to follow along in spite of nonlinear style of the book and the alternating narration.
Before reading The Mountains Sing, I only knew of the Vietnam War and little else of Vietnamese History. This book was an incredibly valuable read in that it opened my eyes up to all the other traumas and tragedies that my people like my parent and grandparents and the rest of my family lived through. There is a section in the book where a character is described as “a beautiful lotus flower that has risen from a pond of mud” and I couldn’t find a better description for this novel. This novel is but one work of beauty that has come out from the pond of mud that is the repeated horrors, trauma and tragedies Vietnam and its people have been through. And we can only hope that in the future we get more of these stories that may have been previously hidden from us.
Regardless of how this book came into my possession, the above review consists of my honest opinion of the book and my opinion only.