The Mountains Sing

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

Book cover

I nearly put this book down around the halfway mark because of the sheer unrelenting tragedy of it. Over the course of this generational saga, without spoilering too much, we see family members: arbitrarily killed by occupying Japanese soldiers, raped by South Vietnamese troops, permanently disfigured by land mines and Agent Orange, driven to alcoholism by the horrors of war, executed by communist land reform mobs, starved to death in famines, and just disappearing with no closure…I am pretty sure I could go on. The only works that came to mind that equal the crushing pain in this book were “Nectar in a Sieve” and “Grave of the Fireflies.”

And yet, I’m glad I continued. The tragedies in the book are by no means played for exploitation or titillation, as I think is all too common in American media about Vietnam. As Huong’s grandmother says, “The challenges faced by the 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.” As the simile suggests, Mai is able to find grandeur and beauty through telling the story of a family’s resilience. Her somewhat authorial main character, Huong, treasures a translated volume of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and her perspective (as well as her grandmother’s in the telling of older stories) echoes some of the bravery and sense of a young person’s wonder at the world that Americans may be familiar with from that work.

Among other things, I was glad to read an account of Vietnam in the second half of the 20th century from a Vietnamese perspective, given how American media tends to be filled with accounts of Vietnam from an American viewpoint. Mai’s implicit perspective is by no means a partisan one, taking a critical eye to the Viet Minh, the ARVN, the communist government, and foreign occupiers alike. If the author takes one political position, I would say it is simply anti-war.

One or two things in the book wrap up a little too neatly for my taste at the end of the book, but on the other hand, a major mystery is simply left unknown in a way that I found quite realistic. Mai has a poet’s eye for the beauty in everyday things, my favorite being a scene of a bike mechanic fixing a flat inner tube. And I appreciated that, similar to “America is Not the Heart,” Mai often uses untranslated Vietnamese phrases (though she is generous with subsequent context clues!) to ask her English-speaking audience to meet her, just a little bit, in the middle.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars