I might be able to count on one hand the number of books I’ve read that took my breath away. “The Mountains Sing” by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai is one of those books. It moved me to my core. I was shaken, I was touched and, in spite of the tragedies in the book, I was inspired.
Moving back and forth between the stories of grandmother and granddaughter, the novel reflects the pain of 20th century Việt Nam as felt by the people who experienced it in their own homes, in their own families, and in their own country. Hương is a teenager coming of age during the latter days of the war with America. She is from Hà Nội, where bombs and air raids are a regular occurrence. To survive, she and her grandmother flee the city for a while. When they return, their entire neighborhood has been destroyed.
To pass the time, Hương’s grandmother tells her stories about her life when she was younger. Trần Diệu Lan was born in 1920. Although her family was reasonably well-to-do in their farming community, a fortune-teller prophesied that Diệu Lan would lose everything and become poor. This prophecy came true when the Communist government defeated the French and instituted the harsh Land Reform policies that forced many innocent landowners to flee their family farms. Along the way, Diệu Lan faced untenable choices to feed and care for her six children, choices that would leave lasting scars on the family.
Hương has her own tragedies as well. Her mother and father both went missing after volunteering for the Vietnamese army. Her uncles are gone, too.
No one is quite certain about whether any of them are still alive or if they were killed by the Americans. Hunger stalks the land. And, thirst is a danger, too, unless one drinks water that is possibly tainted by war chemicals or natural parasites. Hương and her grandmother live in a makeshift shelter until her grandmother decides to trade on the black market and earn enough to build a new house. In Communist Việt Nam, this is a dangerous and scandalous choice.
One by one, members of the family return from the war with America. Some are injured physically. Others carry internal scars. In war, while one side may experience a “win,” the families, soldiers, and survivors only experience loss.
Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai is a poet, and the music of her poetry infuses her first novel. She is a gifted storyteller. Her characters are full of heart and hope. Some are crushed by their sorrows. Most, though, show a strength that is quite inspirational.
The best fiction tells the truth. The truth is that war is ugly and destructive. While politicians and generals look at maps, strategies, and “the big picture,” little girls and grandmothers see bombed houses, shattered lives, amputated limbs, and starving children. When we can recognize the value of all human life and see people as more similar than different, then maybe, just maybe, we can begin to hope for a world without war.
I’m not naïve enough to believe that will definitely happen, but after reading “The Mountains Sing” I have a little more hope.
Reviewer David Marvin is an insurance agent with the Robert Mannino Insurance Agency in State College. He’s also a volunteer radio host for WPSU.