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The Mountain Song
By Bonnie J. Caracciolo (reviewer)
The Mountains Sing
by Nguyen Phan Que Mai
(Algonquin Books, 2020)
Forty-seven years after the last US soldier left Vietnam, the world has begun to hear from the children who grew up in the late stages of the violence, confronted with the aftermath of war. They lived with the devastation of their natural world, their cities and homes beyond comprehension after ferocious bombings by American B-52s, particularly in the North. These places were no longer safe, they were not habitable. Consequently, many families moved South.
Nguyen Phan Que Mai, born in 1973 in a small village in the North, is one of those children, now grown, whose parents took her and her brother south in the hopes of rebuilding their lives and taking part in the reunification of their country. Que Mai, as she is known, struggled along with her family and fellow Vietnamese citizens, in a land haunted by the ghosts of both allied and Vietnamese dead. The land is strewn with the skeletons of war machines, destroyed infrastructure, and poisoned natural environment.
This historical novel, Nguyen's first, is written in English. It is a monumental task accomplished by a journalist, poet, and writer whose real-life experiences give credibility to this work. The Mountains Sing is the story of four generations of the Tran family. Weaving the history of Vietnam from the 1900s to this century, the voices of a grandmother and granddaughter take their turn sharing experiences through the Great Hunger, the Land Reform, the various foreign occupations, the American War (as the Vietnamese rightfully call it) and, finally, the reunification. This is a complex, multi-layered story that highlights the strength and determination of the women and children of war.
The Mountains Sing is a lush work that introduces many readers to the beautiful poetry and imagery of a nation all too often associated with war, with many cultural allegories and anecdotes, poems and songs, threaded throughout. While there are cold passages of death and destruction, holding nothing back, there are also many lovely moments of familial love, forgiveness, strength, and dignity. The dream of no more war, ever, anywhere.
The Mountains Sing provides a look into the other side of the American War and what that looked like, what the people experienced, how they saw the world during the war and how they survived while bombs fell all around them.
Yet this novel is not just about the American War, it is more about the astounding 3,000-year history of a people having survived many challenges, about the beauty of the land, the music, poetry, and traditions handed down from generation to generation. The Mountains Sing is a look into the heart and soul of Vietnam and its people. It offers up the importance of family, ancestors, and traditions. Finally, it breathes life into real humans who manage somehow to be more like us than unlike us. It reminds us that nature and the earth are at once a part of who we are.
The author describes some of her seven-year journey writing The Mountains Sing: "It may seem ironic that I have chosen to write this novel, by far my most personal work to date, in English, which is also the language of invasive military powers and cultures. But this language has given me a new voice and a way to fictionalize the turbulent events of my country's past, including those which have not yet been sufficiently documented in Vietnamese fiction, such as the Great Hunger or the Land Reform. I am responding, with my art, to Hollywood movies and novels written by those Westerners who continue to see our country only as a place of war and our people as people who don't need to speak — or, when we do, we sound simple, naïve, cruel, or opportunistic. The canon of Vietnam war and post-war literature in English is vast, but there is a lack of voices from inside Vietnam."
Reading The Mountains Sing, I was struck by the feeling that I somehow knew the characters and felt their joy, their pain, their sorrow. I have been fortunate to spend time with Que Mai and we have maintained a correspondence. She is an accomplished writer whose work has been translated and published in more than ten countries and won her many honors. Ms. Nguyen was about to launch a global book tour when the coronavirus pandemic took hold and ended the tour. Fortunately, she can be found online presenting interviews and commentaries. The Mountains Sing is receiving a flood of stellar reviews from major book reviewers in the US and elsewhere, having just been released in March 2020. Please seek out this historical novel; you can find it at all good booksellers.
The Mountains Sing is a book you will find difficult to put down and impossible to forget. I know I will have to read it a second time and possibly a third.
Learn more about Nguyen Phan Que Mai at her website:
Bonnie J Caracciolo, who lives in Boston, works at being a thorn in the side of the Empire.