“The Mountains Sing” by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

“The challenges faced by the Vietnamese people throughout history are as tall as the tallest mountains,” writes Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai in the first chapter of The Mountains Sing. This is no exaggeration: wars, famine and political revolution test her characters, various members of the extended Tran family, to the limit. This engrossing family saga, both Quế Mai’s debut novel and her first book in English, provides a fresh, and ultimately uplifting, perspective on the American-Vietnamese war.

The story, set in the period from the 1930s to the 1980s, is told from several points of view and flips forwards and backwards in time. The protagonist, Huong, is the bookish granddaughter who conveys the later part of the narrative. However, it is Dieu Lan, the resolute grandmother, who emerges as the hero as she relates her struggle for the survival of herself and her children in the earlier years.

 

The Mountains Sing, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai (Oneworld, August 2020; Algonquin, March 2020)
The Mountains Sing, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai (Oneworld, August 2020; Algonquin, March 2020)

The action begins in the village of Vinh Phuc. The Tran family, one of the richest in Nghe An province, are landowners and farmers. They employ local villagers and treat them fairly. All is bucolic bliss until the Second World War begins and Dieu Lan’s father, Hung, is murdered by Japanese soldiers as they travel to Hanoi to sell their crop of potatoes.

Dieu Lan survives the attack, but the worst is yet to come. Three years later, in 1945, the Great Famine arrives. Starving, Dieu Lan and her mother go out foraging and stray into a field owned by a man nicknamed Wicked Ghost, a tax collector for the French. He finds them and beats them. Dieu Lan is rescued by a neighbor who is unfortunately too late to save her mother.

Despite the tragedy, the family cling on to the farm until the Land Reform of 1955. Dieu Lan is forced to flee to Hanoi as a beggar with five of her children, the eldest son, Minh, having escaped separately. Along the way, she finds safe havens for four children and leaves them behind, arriving in Hanoi only with the youngest, Sang. In time, she re-establishes a family home and brings the children back to it, only to lose them all again to the American and ensuing civil wars.

 

In the meantime, Huong is born and is growing up in Hanoi. She sees the human cost of the war as mother and uncles return from the front line, damaged both physically and emotionally. Her father never makes it, sending only a carved wooden bird, a son ca, whose name means “the mountain sings”.

Amid the sadness, Huong finds love with a school-mate, Tam, and the pair plan to marry. In an unexpected twist, it transpires that Tam is the grandson of Wicked Ghost and the wedding is abandoned. Shortly afterwards, however, Wicked Ghost dies and the families are reconciled. The novel ends with Tam, Huong and their children honoring Dieu Lan by burning a manuscript of their shared story at her grave so she can read the words in heaven.

The son ca is also present at the rite and is a key metaphor. Legend says that the souls of the dead return in the son ca’s singing which is the purpose of this novel. By telling the stories of what happened to ordinary people during this troubled time in Vietnamese history, their memories are kept alive and they can live on through their descendants. It’s a message of comfort but also of hope for the future, as Quế Mai writes:

 

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.

Jane Wallace is a Hong Kong-born journalist and author living in London.