Book Reviews

The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai — love and courage in beseiged country

The Mountains Sing is a sweeping tale of one woman’s determination to hold her family together no matter what life throws at them. It’s also the tale of a country battered for decades by famine, war and idealogical conflict.

Through the lens of a single family, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai relates the traumatic history of Việt Nam during the 20th century. It’s an epic narrative in one sense, covering the decades from 1920s to the 1980s, Yet it’s also a very personal and intimate narrative, using the historical events as a backdrop to a moving account of a relationship between three generations of a family: the matriarch Diệu Lan, her daughter Ngoc and her grandaughter Hương,

The challenges faced by Vietnamese people throughout history are as tall as the tallest mountains. If you stand too close, you won’t be able to see their peaks. Once you step away from the currents of life, you will have the full view…

The Mountains Sing opens in Hà Nội in 1972 as Hương and her grandmother scramble to find shelter from the American bombers about to launch another attack on the city. When they emerge it’s to find the streets of their neighbourhood strewn with bodies and their neighbours’ homes destroyed.

Fifty-two-year old Diệu Lan is no stranger to the ravages of conflict. She’s lost her father, husband, brother and eldest son to war and occupation. She’s borne witness to the Great Hunger of the 1940s; the Land Reform programme in the 1950s which saw landowners stripped of their property by the Communist regime and then the war between North and South Vietnam. She”s met every tumultuous event with courage and ingenuity, driven on by a fierce belief that she must protect her children, at all costs.

As America wages war on North Việt Nam,, Diệu Lan begins to tell stories from her past to help bolster the spirits of her 12 year old grand-daughter whose parents and uncles are away fighting the war. These tales contain joy but they also make grim reading. Yet Diệu Lan never flinches from telling the truth even when it casts a dark shadow on her own actions.

For this woman, stories from her past are part of her legacy. As she tells her granddaughter: If our stories survive, we will not die, even when our bodies are no longer here on earth. It’s also an act of defiance against those in authority in Việt Nam, who have censored the past:

A part of or country’s history has been erased, together with the lives of countless people. We’re forbidden to talk about events that relate to past mistakes or the wrongdoing of those in power, for they give themselves the right to rewrite history. But … history will write itself in people’s memories, and as long as those memories live on, we can have faith that we can do better.

The Mountains Sing is Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s first novel and it’s written in English, a language she didn’t learn until she reached 8th grade in school. It makes her accomplishment even more impressive.

This could easily become an overly sentimental tale but  she handles the relationship between these the women beautifully. We see both the love and warmth between grandmother and grand-daughter and also how that bond is challenged as Hương matures and her mother returns from the war.

Diệu Lan is a richly powerful characterisation. It’s hard to avoid admiring a woman so resilient and courageous. In one of the most affecting sections she flees from her family farm to avoid being taken captive because of the Land Reform policy. With six children (one just a baby) she sets out to walk 300 kilometres to Hà Nội , desperately hungry yet terrified of approaching any village in case she will be denounced.

Despite decades of struggle and strife, she is still capable of compassion, showing unceasing love for one son who rejects her to further his position within the Communist party and another son who fought for the pro-American South Vietnamese Army.

The Mountains Sing doesn’t just trace the history of the country. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai brings Việt Nam, to life through its folktales, food and, above all its language. Place names and character names use the Vietnamese alphabet – so it’s Hà Nội  and Thanh Hóa not the westernised versions Hanoi and Thanh Hoa. The dialogue is rich too in phrases and sentences rendered in Vietnamese, which are sometimes, but not always translated, giving it an added dimension of authenticity.

This is a fascinating book that resonates with Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s love of her homeland and her desire to show how its people have paid the price for decades of conflict. Touchingly she dedicates this novel to her relatives and countrymen.

For my grandmother, who perished in the Great Hunger; for my grandfather who died because of the Land Reform; and for my uncle whose youth the Việt Nam War consumed. For the millions of people, Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese who lost their lives in the war. May our planet never see another armed conflict.

The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

The Mountains Sing is the first novel by the Vietnamese poet and journalist Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai. Born in a small village in the North of Vietnam in 1973, Quế Mai migrated with her family to the Mekong Delta, South of Việt Nam when she was six years old. To help support the family she worked as a street seller and rice farmer before winning a scholarship to an Australian university. She is the author of eleven books of poetry, short fiction and non-fiction in the Vietnamese language. Having lived previously in Australia, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Belgium and Indonesia, (her husband works in development assistance which takes him around the world) she currently divides her time between Kyrgyzstan and Vietnam. 

The hardback edition of The Mountains Sing was published in 2020 by One World who issued the paperback version in 2021. Quế Mai’s second novel in English, Dust Child, is due to be published by Algonquin Books (date as yet is unknown).


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

17 thoughts on “The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai — love and courage in beseiged country

  • tracybham

    I especially like that this covers so much time, thus giving more background. Despite my age and that I knew people around my age who had been to Viet Nam or who made choices for their futures to avoid the draft, I never understood any of the history of the conflict and was never interested in reading fiction about the conflict, especially from the point of view of the US. I will look for a copy of this book.

    • images from Vietnam were very common on tv and in newspapers when I was growing up but I never knew that much about the country or completely understood what was happening. This book filled in some of my gaps

  • Excellent review, Karen. I have this one on my shelves and I love that it mixes traditional storytelling with this resilient woman and her granddaughter’s own story of survival.

  • The Americans offered the peasant a constitution; the Viet Cong offered him his land and with it the right to survive. The agency offered to Vietnamese characters, is a very welcome change from the countless movies, books and documentaries that focus on American soldiers. The “enemies” that Diệu Lan faces when she returns to her home town are not her true enemies, but merely agents of an oppressive Marxist regime that engineered the disastrous land reform. The fact that The Mountains Sing is published in English, means its content still faces translation and censorship hurdles before reaching readers in Vietnam.

    • Thanks for the additional insight Shaharee. I hadn’t appreciated that censorship was still in place in the country today which does indeed limit the ability of local readers to get access to it.

    • This was a first for me and an eye-opening experience.

    • Absolutely Carol, the sections where the grandmother describes how she tried to escape the Land Reform were heart-breaking

  • It’s good to see fiction and memoir emerging from Vietnam. The Vietnam War (which they call The American War) was so eventful in our part of the world but the narrative has tended to be framed around Vietnam Vets and their PTSD. But when we travelled there in 2007 it was sobering to see things like massive bomb craters and to realise the impact of that on the local people.

    • It’s the first novel I’ve come across that turns the perspective away from the Americans – there may be more like this but I don’t know of them personally. It must have been dispiriting for you to see evidence of so much damage even after 25 years or more. One of the points made in the novel – though not dwelt on – are the longer term effects of Agent Orange on the environment and on people

      • There’s a ‘War Remnants Museum’ which has a photo display of birth deformities, and also photos of some gruesome atrocities that never made it into the press here. We saw quite a few American war vets while we were there, and in that museum they looked very sombre indeed.
        I should add that we saw examples of Vietnamese atrocities too, including traps designed to inflict torture on those who fell into them in order to make them talk. Both sides did terrible things in that war, the US because it had the power to do it, and the Vietnamese fighting back with whatever they could.

        • Gruesome indeed, not easy to feel in holiday mood when you witness material of that nature.

        • Well, true, but there’s very few places in the world that don’t have a gruesome history of one sort or another. Even the Tower of London, sanitised as it is, still evokes horror about what went on within its walls.

        • That’s true – and those places that don’t have much of a gruesome factor make what they do have stretch very far because they know that pulls in the punters.

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