Book: The Mountains Sing
Author: Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
Genre(s): Historical Fiction
Release: March 2020
The Mountains Sing is a sweeping and lyrical multigenerational tale of the Trần family during the time of the Việt Nam War. The reader is swept through the story with dual narratives and alternating timelines by young Hương, affectionately called Guava, and her grandmother, Diệu Lan.
I don’t traditionally read historical fiction because way back in secondary school, history bored me to tears and I’ve just avoided it like the plague ever since. Lately though, I’ve been more appreciative of compelling narratives that not only provide a historical account, but do so in a manner that captivates and maintains my interest. It’s a win-win for me – I get to enjoy a phenomenal story and (re)learn something about history! All that rambling to say that The Mountains Sing is one of the most compelling historical fiction novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading.
The dual narratives and alternating timelines provide the reader with an inspiring and tragic account of civilian life just before and during the Việt Nam War. Diệu Lan is a resilient character; she began life on a wealthy farm, lost everything, and endured hardships for her family that would have crushed the average person, turning to nature when the world was letting her down.
Around me, rice plants began rustling their tiny, green hands. They were offering me their most soothing rice lullaby. I realized that whenever humans failed us, it was nature who could help save us.
She passes this endurance and inspiration to her granddaughter, Hương, who stays with her grandmother while her parents are supporting the war effort. From Hương’s narrative, we see the war told through the lens of an innocent girl forced to face the realities of the world – not alone, but with the support and strength of her family. It is especially inspiring to hear Hương grow from the stories told to her, to learn and respect the past but change the future. Together, Hương and Diệu Lan recount the story of their family, the beauty of culture, customs, and beliefs, and the pride and love that bring their people together in times of hardship and tragedy.
…by reading their books, I saw the other side of them – their humanity. Somehow I was sure that if people were willing to read each other, and see the light of other cultures, there would be no war on earth.
I loved this book, not only for the story that was woven with exquisite detail, but for it’s sincere account of Việt Nam from a native perspective. Growing up with a Western education, it’s embarrassing to admit that I only learned a small portion about the war, and from a white-washed perspective. I never realized how much I was missing about Việt Nam’s history, and this book helped to fill those gaps in my knowledge. I would recommend this book to everyone, whether you like historical fiction or not.