Title: The Mountains Sing
Author: Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai Publisher: Oneworld Publications ISBN: 978-1786079220
Genre: Literary Fiction
“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,” the grandmother Dieu Lan tells her granddaughter, nicknamed Guava. “But you’re old enough to know that 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” unfolds a narrative of 20th century Vietnam, right from the land reforms of the 50s, as well as the several troublesome and turbulent decades before it, to the Vietnam War against America, beginning in 2012 and looking backwards. The story is told through the women of a single family. Brave, courageous, and tenacious women. Women who don’t give up – in the face of tragedy, and also don’t give up when it comes to hoping for better futures, time and time again.
The book alternates with memories of Dieu Lan, in the form of stories she tells her granddaughter, Hương, and it is through their lives and lived experiences, the story moves forward.
There is so much to unpack in this novel. There is so much to take within you as a reader. The landscape, the family, the neighbours, the kindness, the cruelty, and above all perhaps some humanity shown in times of war and adversity. There are no heroes here. There are no villains. It is what it is. Life, led with gratitude and fortitude, no matter what. The reading of this book has been sublime and taught me the lesson of humility (a lot more to learn in that aspect).
The Mountains Sing made me think of my privilege, my place in the world, and how people live day to day, and we may never know their stories, or at least most stories, till we listen. The politics of the book is what is at the heart of it, on every page, and yet distanced. Maybe it was needed for such a narrative, which is more about a common family, and their lives and what the cultural, political and emotional landscape of their country means to them, and to how they live and deal with grief, loss, happiness, and moments of redemption. Nguyen’s writing had me turn the pages reluctantly. I was overwhelmed and afraid of what was going to happen to these characters I had grown to love, with their jagged edges and more. The prose isn’t pitch-perfect all the time but I loved it that way. I love the disparity, the disconnectedness, and how it lend to the voices of the people who are forever lost.
War changes you. Fear always keeps you on your toes. Life is perhaps irreparable. It takes so much to make sense of life around you, you stumble, you fall, and somehow with some hope, pray ardently that you make it to the other side. The Mountains Sing is a constant reminder of that hope, of that emotion of not letting go, and above all to know that there is some light at the end of the long, dark, tunnel.