Book review - The Mountains Sing

“The challenges of 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…” This is the advice a grandmother offers to her beloved granddaughter in Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s lyrical family saga. Born in North Việt Nam, Nguyễn won a scholarship to study in Australia and currently lives in Jakarta. She wrote
The Mountains Sing, aged thirty-nine, in English rather than her Vietnamese mother tongue. These factors presumably offered the necessary distance for Nguyễn to write a novel inspired by the experiences of her own family. Her compassionate exploration of multi-generational trauma is also a clear-eyed account of Việt Nam’s harrowing past.

 The novel is narrated from the dual perspectives of Hương, affectionately known as Guava, and her grandmother, Trần Diệu Lan who is caring for her while her parents her away fighting. In 1972, Hương and Diệu Lan are trying to survive the American bombing of Hà Nội. After their house is reduced to rubble, they are forced to live by their wits in a makeshift shack. Diệu Lan begins to tell Guava about her past, the Japanese occupation in the 1940s and the ensuing famine, followed by the disastrous land reform of the 1950s.

When the communists annexe their farm, Diệu Lan’s brother and son are lynched by resentful Vietnamese neighbours. Diệu Lan becomes a pariah overnight, her home is overrun and she flees her village with five of her six children. Diệu Lan heads for Hà Nội hoping her childhood teacher will give her family shelter. A refugee in her own country she survives by eating grass, begging and the kindness of strangers.

Nguyễn spares us none of the unremittingly bleak circumstances that lead to Diệu Lan’s penury. Her novel’s structure inevitably decreases narrative tension – we know that Diệu Lan survives the tragedies life throws at her. However, Nguyễn makes up for this with her atmospheric settings: “We sat on a stone bench, under an ancient tree with its many branches reaching down to the lake’s surface, yellowing leaves fliting in the wind…in the midst of the water, the Turtle tower glimmered in the afternoon light, moss greening its walls. Atop the tower, figures of dragons and phoenixes soared up to the sky.” Her novel teems with colourful characters and spirits with evocative names such as the Water Devil and Wicked Ghost (the money collector) and Nguyễn clearly delights in her native language - two sons’ names are Thịnh and Vượng, (which together mean prosperity).

In Hà Nội, Diệu Lan rebuilds her life from scratch, trains as a teacher and enjoys a brief respite until conflict tears her family apart again. During the final years of the Việt Nam war, Diệu Lan becomes an illegal trader; an act vilified by her neighbours. Hương is shunned by her classmates and finds solace in the banned foreign books her grandmother procures for her. She is surprised to be able to identify with Laura Ingalls in Little House in the Big Woods: “I sat listening to her father’s music and stories. Just like my father, Pa was funny and enjoyed working with his hands. Just like my mother, Ma was attentive and lived to cook.” Books allow her to empathise with the ‘enemy’ and help her to appreciate life’s simple pleasures: the sacredness of “a normal day where we could just cook, eat, talk and laugh.”

Books, proverbs and poetry teach Hương compassion and strengthen her resolve to become a poet while her grandmother learns that: “Young people can’t be blamed for what their ancestors did.” After reunification, the family’s opposing political affiliations threaten a fragile equilibrium, reminding us that there are few outright winners in a country at war with itself – the importance is to find common ground. The Mountains Sing is a moral tale with the poetic grandeur and violence of a Greek tragedy – although the brutality in Nguyễn account is experienced first-hand rather than offstage.

A powerful motif is that of the song bird. During the war, Hương’s father carves her an exquisite wooden bird and gives it to her uncle for safe keeping: Its name, Sơn ca, means “the mountain sings”. When the bird opens its throat the mountains appear to sing as well. It becomes a poignant symbol of hope: “the Sơn ca’s songs can reach Heaven, and souls of the dead can return in the Sơn ca’s singing.” For Hương, words pave the way to personal happiness and, like the bird, her own songs carries the promise of peace and renewal.

 Originally published by The Arts Desk