There is good reason that The Mountains Sing [Algonquin Books, March 17, 2020], the first novel in English by award-winning poet Nguyen Phan Que Mai, has been ranked among “the most exciting writers to emerge in post-war Vietnam”--it is, in a word, breathtaking.
The Mountains Sing is an epic, multi-generational narrative that traces the arc of Vietnam’s turbulent and painful twentieth-century history as Que Mai gracefully weaves together the timeline of four generations of the Tran family—beginning during the Communist Land Reform of the 1950s and extending through the aftermath of the American bombing of Ha Noi in the early 1970s. Steeped in the storytelling traditions of Vietnam, The Mountains Sing is decadent and heart wrenching, equal parts lush and vibrant in its unfamiliar setting, and just as persistently unrelenting in its depiction of decades worth of war and conflict.
This story, although captivating and stunningly crafted, is nonetheless brutal, making its narration ring true in the heart of the reader--“The more I read, the more I became afraid of wars. Wars have the power to turn graceful and cultured people into monsters.”
Written as Que Mai’s response to single-sided, Western-written depictions of Vietnam as a place of war, simplicity, and cruelty, The Mountains Sing presents a story of history, of resiliency, and of hope as told through the indelible voices of the Tran family, alternating between the family’s matriarch, Tran Dieu Lan, and extending to her granddaughter, Huong. It is every bit a tale as much of painful desperation and the horrors of famine, war, and class struggle, as it is a moving lesson in hope, renewal, and the bond of family. “…I realized 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.”
On a personal note, The Mountains Sing may not have been a title the likes of which normally make its way into my library, but it has nonetheless found a place as one of the most moving, and fundamentally eye-opening, novels I feel I will read in my lifetime.