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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).

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