The Mountains Sing: Runner-up for the 2021 Dayton Literary Peace Prize bookcover

The Mountains Sing: Runner-up for the 2021 Dayton Literary Peace Prize

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai



‘An epic account of Viet Nam’s painful 20th-century history, both vast in scope and intimate in its telling… Moving and riveting.’ Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sympathizer 

Ha Noi, 1972. Hương and her grandmother, Trần Diệu Lan, cling to one another in their improvised shelter as American bombs fall around them. For Trần Diệu Lan, forced to flee the family farm with her six children decades earlier as the Communist government rose to power in the North, this experience is horribly familiar. Seen through the eyes of these two unforgettable women, The Mountains Sing captures their defiance and determination, hope and unexpected joy. 

Vivid, gripping, and steeped in the language and traditions of Việt Nam, celebrated Vietnamese poet Nguyễn’s richly lyrical debut weaves between the lives of a grandmother and granddaughter to paint a unique picture of a country pushed to breaking point, and a family who refuse to give up.

Selected as a Best Book of 2020 by NB Magazine * BookBrowse * Buzz Magazine * NPR * Washington Independent Review of Books * Real Simple * She Reads * A Hindu’s View * Thoughts from a Page

Latest reviews

A very eloquently written epic novel with some beautiful prose. I enjoy learning about something via books and this gives an excellent account of the human cost of war and division in Vietnam. My only niggle was that I often got confused with the many characters that are in the book (despite the family tree at the front of the book).

This is a delightful read, an incredible family saga set in Vietnam. It is based around the memories of Huong’s grandmother, Dieu Lan, as she describes the devastating impact of war on three generations of her family. The book follows the changing fortunes of the Tran family and the challenges they faced throughout several wars and upheavals in 20th century Vietnam. They were split up and gradually reunited as different people shaped by their own tragic experiences. The prose is simple but powerful, switching between brutal and gentle moments. It explores the impact of war, what it can do to normally ‘good’ people, and our capacity to forgive. This is a fast-paced novel, revealing a lot I did not know about Vietnam in the 20th century, and I would recommend it.

A powerful epic story of 4 generations of the Tran family spanning the 1930s to the 1970s in Hà Noi, told in parallel by the lynchpin of the family, Diệu Lan. and her granddaughter Guava/Hương. This is an important story and one I am glad has been written. The author convoys a real sense of the pain and brutality suffered by generations of Vietnamese people over decades if not centuries at the hands of invaders - Chinese, French, Japanese and Americans, - and between the peoples of North and South as well as detailing the horrors of major historical events such as The Great Hunger and The Land Reform. I had very little knowledge of the history of Vietnam apart from that gleaned from Hollywood representations told predominantly from a US viewpoint so was pleased to have broadened my understanding. Over 3 million Vietnamese people had died in the course of 20 years of conflict. 7 million tons of bombs were dropped on the country. The author is to be lauded for the years of research she carried out and for writing the story in English, not her first language, as she claimed it might well have been suppressed by Vietnamese authorities otherwise. She has written and won awards for several books, nonfiction, poetry and fiction, written in Vietnamese. It is undoubtedly a powerful testimony although at times the story does tend to become a list of recounted events with little dramatic tension of engagement with the characters perhaps because the story is told in the form of an account of past events which distances the reader. The most gripping sections of the book were The Walk - when grandma has to “abandon” 5 of her children and find safe places for them to stay for several months until she can return to re-claim them . The guilt she feels lives on with her and it is suggested that her sons did feel anger although she argues that this childhood trauma gave them the resilience and strength to succeed in later life. The final section, when after 25 years the family is re-united with the eldest long-lost son Minh, is particularly moving. The portrayal of Vietnamese family life - customs, traditions, religion, foods,storytelling, proverbs, - was described with genuine warmth and affection by the author. The book does seem to suffer from very little mention of the role of US troops apart from the devastation and aftermath of the chemical weapon Agent Orange, nor is there any real background to the causes or arguments for the rise of the communist regime in the country. The author’s family were landowners and the story is told in a sympathetic way towards the affluent middle classes rather than to the socialist cause. The peasants who rise up and seize the land are portrayed as rioting groups baying for blood and threatening the family. Party leaders are referred to as inciting hatred and violence. Communist views and ideology, as adopted later by some of Huang’s uncles, are seen as propaganda whilst the banned stories Huang reads and enjoys as a child, (Pinocchio, Little House on the Prairie etc) are American. Details of post war re-education camps, spies, arrests, families split North and South and by ideologies, migration to the US, the Viet Minh, an anti-intellectual, anti-bourgeoise, anti-middle class movement are all referenced from a markedly South Vietnamese viewpoint. However the overall message is anti-war and anti political extremism. The devastation caused and the tragic impact on the Tran family members is life changing, (alcoholism, injury, illness, PTSD, infertility, death,) and their story argues for the importance of family, forgiveness, hope and and is witness to the incredible resilience, determination and strength of women in wartime. Thank you to The Reading Agency and One World publishing for giving me the opportunity to read this book with my book group - Hythe Remainers. Having read it immediately after reading the controversial but popular and best selling “American Dirt” it was a welcome contrasting authentic read told by a writer with her roots and family in the context of the country and history she wrote about. I believe Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s next novel is due to focus on the children of US soldiers and Vietnamese women - I look forward to reading it.

The Reading Agency

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