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  • Catriona Fida

The Mountains Sing


Not too long ago I thought that historical fiction wasn’t really my thing but this genre continues to surprise me and I can now confirm that I am, indeed, a fan.


The Mountains Sing follows the lives of Trần Diệu Lan and her granddaughter Hương as they navigate through various periods in 20th Century Vietnamese history, including the Japanese occupation during World War Two, the land reform, the famine, and of course the Vietnam War.


On OneWorld Publications’ Instagram they have posted an Instagram live where the author discusses her experiences of writing The Mountains Sing which I would definitely recommend to anyone interested in learning more about the book. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai talks beautifully about how the seven years she took to write this novel was a ‘journey of coming home’. She also notes how she felt a pressure to reflect the intricacies of Vietnamese culture and history in this book. This was especially since she felt that history books and the mainstream teaching of the Vietnam War excludes the lives and sufferings of the Vietnamese people. She has said that the international reader knows Vietnam as a war, not a country.


Also in the Instagram live, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai talks about her interest in the representation of Vietnamese women in Vietnam War literature and how they were often depicted as ‘prostitutes needing to be rescued by foreigners’. In this novel, she is attempting to rewrite this narrative and provide a voice to those who have been silenced throughout historical accounts of the Vietnam War. She notes how women in Vietnamese communities had played an important role in keeping families together during wartime and were vital in the war effort through volunteering as doctors, nurses and even as soldiers, in some cases, yet that this is rarely documented.


The inheritance of trauma is an important theme which is shown through Hương’s coming-of-age and her witnessing how war has devastated her family and their livelihoods. Hương represents the hundreds of people Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai interviewed for this story, as well as the author herself, who has included some of her own experiences growing up in Vietnam. As such, the book addresses some of the shattering effects of war on these people, including alcoholism, PTSD, debilitating injuries and even infertility as a result of exposure to agent orange.


Particularly beautiful was the representation of family bonds, chiefly demonstrated through the bonds of grandmothers, daughters and granddaughters, which is achieved through the alternating perspectives of Hương and Trần Diệu Lan. On Goodreads, the author notes how Grandma Diệu Lan ‘is the grandmother I always wished for. Both my grandmothers had died before my birth and I wanted to have a grandma who would sing me lullabies, tell me the legends and tales of my village, as well as teach me what I needed to know about my family's history’. This narrative is therefore about keeping these memories alive and passing them down through the generations so that they aren’t lost.


There are many traditional Vietnamese proverbs and phrases used throughout this book which, as the author has said, have been adopted in order to retain the essence of the Vietnamese language. At times, the writing has a musical quality, through the use of poetic language and in references to songs/lullabies which the family seek comfort in.


If I have any criticism for this book, it’s that the narrative of the grandmother, Trấn Diệu Lan, is sometimes hard to distinguish from that of Hủỏng. They have similar voices and personalities so unless you pay close attention to the chapter heading, you might mistake whose narrative you are reading. That being said, I really enjoyed the switching narration and loved how the two women’s stories seemed to mirror each other.


This book is phenomenal and I couldn’t recommend it enough. I read it in physical copy but since there are lots of beautiful Vietnamese phrases in this book, I believe that the audiobook would be a great option if you are looking to read this book.


A big thank you to Anne Cater, One World Publications and Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai for a copy of this beautiful book. The Mountains Sing is out now in hardback.

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