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Book Review: The Mountains Sing

The Mountains Sing
Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

The Mountains Sing was published on March 17th, 2020. I received an eARC from the publisher, but as always, all thoughts are my own. 


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 Trần family, set against the backdrop of the Việt Nam War. Trần Diệu 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 Nội, her young granddaughter, Hương, comes of age as her parents and uncles head off down the Hồ Chí Minh Trail to fight in a conflict that tore not just her beloved country, but her family apart.

Vivid, gripping, and steeped in the language and traditions of Việt 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 novel provides a geographical and historical tour of Việt Nam that spans almost the entire 20th century, which is both effectively encompassed and carried out by the way Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai chose to write the book: through multiple generations of the Trần family. Its epic qualities and comfortable pacing are quite complementary; the complexities, simple truths, and consequences of war, sacrifice, everyday life, and nostalgia are presented on the pages in a way that allows the story to move along, while the weight and importance of each scene, conversation, and character interaction are maintained.

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai wastes no time in placing her reader alongside the two main characters, Trần Diệu Lan and Hương, as they try to find shelter after hearing sirens alerting citizens of incoming bombs. We are immediately swept into their story of survival and what led to the way things are; the people in this novel do not rise above the supporting details, they are strengthened by the history and geography  Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai made a point to include. Every so often a sentence or paragraph would slightly lose the narrative flow and have a slight textbook tone, but these slight variances were not common and thus did not significantly distract from the story.

The Mountains Sing is, like most beautifully done multi-generational, historically based fiction, more than just a timeline of events and a dive into a family tree. It makes history feel more accessible, and provides another look into what it means to be human. There is a lot of room to reflect on the fictional characters’ choices and paths of life, while also facing the realities Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai included and alluded to – making this a work of fiction that cannot be missed.

About the Author:

Born into the Viet Nam War in 1973, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai grew up witnessing the war’s devastation and its aftermath. She worked as a street seller and rice farmer before winning a scholarship to attend university in Australia. She is the author of eight books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction published in Vietnamese, and her writing has been translated and published in more than 10 countries, most recently in Norton’s Inheriting the War anthology. She has been honored with many awards, including the Poetry of the Year 2010 Award from the Hà Nội Writers Association, as well as many grants and fellowships. Married to a European diplomat, Quế Mai is currently living in Jakarta with her two teenage children. For more information about Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, visit her website.


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