Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai is a celebrated Vietnamese poet. With the release of her 2020 book, The Mountains Sing she’s also a novelist. The book is an intimate view of the Tran family and their struggles across decades and generations. Nguyễn uses two story lines to shape her tale. One is the grandmother Tran Dieu Lan, and the second her granddaughter Hương.
Nguyễn blends sorrow, joy, and hard lives in this lyrical work. She tells the history of the people of Northern Vietnam, from both the villages and the city of Hà Noi. Dieu Lan’s family owns a thriving rural farm, and she follows expectations by marrying and bearing six kids. Then comes the Communist takeover and Land Reform, which targets wealthy landowners. Dieu Lan and her kids are displaced, and she struggles to keep the family together as they journey to Hà Noi.
Decades later, Dieu Lan is raising her granddaughter Hương, whose parents are off fighting in the Viet Nam War. Hương must find her way into adulthood by navigating both the city streets and her family’s traumas.
After reading books with distinctly colonialist perspectives, reading one focused on the people native to the country was meaningful. This is a story of survival against all odds and made me admire Dieu Lan’s perseverance. As she gets older, Hương understand more and appreciates everything her grandmother has done for her. Their relationship is quite sweet.
Family relationships aren’t easy, especially in the midst of hardship. Nguyễn adds details of all Dieu Lan’s children into the novel. Listening on audiobook made it a bit hard to follow, but ultimately, I caught all the details. We learn the most about Hương’s mother, and also empathize as the three women try to find her father. Spending time with the Tran family reminded me to be grateful for the family I see so regularly and those further away as well.
The realities of life under Communism and in the midst of the war are stark. Nguyễn doesn’t shy away from the hard realities. But her language is so flowing and gentle that at times it seems more idyllic than it actually is.
I recommend The Mountains Sing if you enjoy historical fiction. The setting is one not often written about, and the family will stay in your heart after the book ends.
Pair with The Red Lotus by Chris Bohjalian. Both set at least partly in Vietnam, they couldn’t be more different. Or try The Third Son by Julie Wu. Although it’s set in Taiwan, it also includes the realities of Communist rule in Asia.