‘In times of crisis, people are kind’ [book review]

A review of The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

It reads a lot like a fable, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s The Mountains Sing. A fable set in a country both beautiful and devastated, a country divided into North and South. A fable in which, like their country, people can be roughly divided into good and evil – until it becomes apparent that, just like a land border, this divide is a porous, shifting thing. A fable in which some get their comeuppance, some are granted a happy ending, and others have to live on with mysteries that will never be revealed.

The Mountains Sing Nguyen Phan Que Mai

Of her first novel written in English, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai – who is known primarily as a poet in her native Vietnamese – has said that she was looking for a language that would give her the necessary distance with which to write a deeply personal book. It’s an echo of a sentiment voiced by several other authors recently, including Ocean Vuong (whose On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous takes up his family history in the English he knew his own mother couldn’t read) and Nino Haratischvili, author of The Eighth Life (for Brilka), an epic about a Georgian family written in her second language of German. Perhaps it comes from the language itself, perhaps it is employed as an additional device, but there is very definitely a sense of reserve in The Mountains Sing, a level, spare way of writing that holds the reader at bay even as the narrative beckons us in. This is not your story, it seems to be saying. But it is mine, and you will listen.

Told from the point of view of a girl growing up in Hanoi during what we in the West refer to as the Vietnam War, The Mountains Sing has storytelling at its core. Huong, our narrator, recounts how she and her grandmother flee the American bombs raining down on the city, and how they set out to rebuild their lives and family once the conflict is over. Interspersed with her chapters of the narrative are stories told to her by her grandmother, Dieu Lan, which take us right through the troubled history of Vietnam, from French colonial rule to Japanese occupation, the ascent of the Communist government and the division into North and South. Each episode is marked by extreme violence, and yet there is something ritualistic about this storytelling – the kind of bedtime routine you might expect to find between grandmother and granddaughter, only here imbued with a desperate poignancy because of the intention behind it. With most of her children missing or killed in the war when the novel opens, Dieu Lan has no choice but to pass on the family history to her granddaughter.

Dieu Lan’s stories are echoed by the other narratives-within-a-narrative that Quế Mai employs, such as letters read aloud to family members, secret diary entries and smuggled notes, even the neighbourly gossip that permeates Hanoi. Proverbs are incredibly important, peppering the text in their original Vietnamese – ‘the essence of our ancestors’ wisdom’, according to Dieu Lan. Huong is a bookish girl who loves fairy tales and The Little House on the Prairie, although at first she is resistant to reading a book written by an American – the enemy. In persevering, she begins to feel a kinship with Laura, the narrator of the book, and concludes eventually that ‘if people were willing to read each other, and see the light of other cultures, there would be no war on earth’. A little obvious, perhaps, this device, but this is precisely what Quế Mai is trying to do with her own novel. Writing in English and publishing The Mountains Sing in the States first of all, she is deliberately reaching out to Americans – and a Western readership in general – to offer us a story we might previously not have listened to.

The Vietnam War is one story, and it deserves careful attention, but there are others contained within this novel that might be less familiar. The ‘Great Hunger’ that devastated the country following the Second World War is drawn in horrifying detail, as are the land reforms that struck in the 1950s, tearing families apart and killing thousands as landowners were ripped violently from their homes. The arbitrary denunciations and executions experienced by Dieu Lan and her family are shocking, yet told with a slight air of detachment that gives them a desperate inevitability. The Vietnamese history, we are made aware from the beginning, is a troubled one, but more than anything it is one that hasn’t been told properly. One novel might have a hard time standing against the weight of textbooks, colonial literature and the official line, but Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai seems determined to try.

The Mountains Sing takes its title from a particular kind of bird, the sơn ca, of which Huong is sent a small wooden carving by her war-snatched father. The mountains are also representative of the Vietnamese people, who in this novel are given a voice in all their multiplicity – whether Northern or Southern, rich or poor, male or female, ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Although the singing is no doubt meant to refer to this chorus of voices, it is also a good reflection of the way in which Quế Mai occasionally allows her poetic voice free rein. Though her prose is on the whole unembellished, often maintaining a childish tone in keeping with the narrator’s age, she is now and again given to moments of inspired beauty, particularly when it comes to describing the landscapes of her country. In her words, Vietnam becomes a lush, vivid tapestry, a country of intense natural beauty against which the cruelty of humans stands in even greater contrast.

‘In times of crisis, people are kind’, Huong’s grandmother asserts early on – though this is a statement that the events of the novel will go on to belie. And yet there is a sense of redemption in The Mountains Sing, the fairy-tale trope of forgiveness at the end of a long journey coming into play in a manner that doesn’t ring false. Although questioning the way in which we make assumptions about other people, whether from a different country or within our own family, Quế Mai does offer us a reason to hope, does land her novel in the territory of the happy ending. Not all loose ends are tied up, fortunately – otherwise we would be at risk of things becoming cloying – but there is a definite sense that good will come out on top. I’m not always one for a happy ending, myself – but reaching the final pages of this thoroughly absorbing novel, I was grateful to Quế Mai for offering up a moment, however brief, of healing.

The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai is published in the UK in hardback by Oneworld on 20 August 2020. My thanks to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for organising an advance review copy and giving me a place on the publication blog tour.

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