Synopsis: With the epic sweep of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko or Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and the lyrical beauty of Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan, The Mountains Sing tells an enveloping, multigenerational tale of the Tran family, set against the backdrop of the Viet Nam War. Tran Dieu Lan, who was born in 1920, was forced to flee her family farm with her six children during the Land Reform as the Communist government rose in the North. Years later in Hà Noi, her young granddaughter, Hương, comes of age as her parents and uncles head off down the Ho Chí Minh Trail to fight in a conflict that will tear not just her beloved country but her family apart.
Vivid, gripping, and steeped in the language and traditions of Viet Nam, The Mountains Sing brings to life the human costs of this conflict from the point of view of the Vietnamese people themselves, while showing us the true power of kindness and hope. This is celebrated Vietnamese poet Nguyen Phan Que Mai’s first novel in English.
Trigger Warnings: Death, Bombing, War, Killings, Psychological Trauma, Suicide
Only through honesty can we learn about the truth.The Mountains Sing, Nguyen Phan Que Mai
An instant favorite. This book will rip your heart open but then stitch it back up with all the tenderness of love, family, and hope. It was so beautifully lyrical that I’m having a hard time crafting words to really convey this masterpiece. Just like the title, the book sings to you—singing tragic yet poetic tales of human resilience and the strengths of motherhood. For me, this book hits home like One Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, and The Gangster We Are All Looking For by Le Thi Diem Thuy. I had to take breaks in between, sobbing like a baby while my heart aches for the characters; the stories felt so personal because in a way, they connect to my family’s history.
The War has always been an unspoken topic within my household, something that we can’t talk about because of the trauma and pain so reading the book felt liberating—as if my own grandmother was telling me her story and how she persevered during one of the most scarring times in history. But more than that, The Mountains Sing offers us a complicated and nuanced portrait of Nguoi Bac, or Vietnamese Northerners. By painting a portrait of humanity, Nguyen Phan invites us to not view the War as black and white but rather, to see through the experiences of Vietnamese who yearned for freedom—along with the costs of that freedom.
War isn’t kindness or sympathy… war is death, sorrow, and misery.
Reading The Mountains Sing feels like curling up with my grandma as she soothes my hair and recounts her journey. This book means so much to me because it literally parallels my family’s history. My great-grandma took her three kids with her and traveled on foot from Ha Noi to Saigon while the War raged through the country—and my great grandma’s last name is also Tran like the family from the book. But even if you don’t have any connections to the War, the book still sings to you. Told from multiple perspectives within the Tran family, we get first-hand accounts of how people were displaced by war and the brutal effects of imperialism but also the ongoing intergenerational trauma passed down from parents to their children. How the memories of war ravage on, taking and taking without mercy.
Last but not least, this book is a tale about motherhood. Not only is it hopeful, it also invites you to think about the lengths of which mothers are willing to go for their children and their family. Such stories are often overlooked within the discussions of war, but Nguyen Phan did a phenomenal job in highlighting the role of women during wartime and their strengths to build bridges and even hold up skies. Also, I’d like to note English was not the author’s native language so this book is also the epitome of strength.
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.
I hope you enjoyed reading the review! It was such a joy to write—even though I had to take breaks because this book just means so much to me. I invite everyone to read this book because you will definitely fall in love with it.