Book: The Mountains Sing

Author: Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

Review by: Penelope Prime, founding director, China Research Center

Penelope Prime

This moving novel set in Vietnam was inspired by the author’s own family history. The description of how the conflict disrupted the lives of the Tran family, first with the French and then the Americans, is instructive of how traumatic the last century was for ordinary people.  Then, once the foreigners finally left, the Communist regime crushed the Trans’ enterprising family farm multiple times, often killing family members in the process.  

The story begins with a young girl, Huong, raised by her grandmother in a time of scarcity with American bombs falling on Hanoi daily. Huong’s mother leaves to find her father, who has been missing for what seems to her a very long time. Huong and her grandmother flee to a small village to avoid the bombing. Many harrowing events follow. 

Still, somehow, the story is uplifting. As Huong grows up, she meets other family members, learns their stories and the stories of her ancestors. She sees kindness and love and finds forgiveness amidst adversity.

This novel reminds me of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which I read long ago and also loved. Set in the turmoil of partition in India, the family story unfolds. 

Similarly, The Mountains Sing is a marvelous way to gain an understanding of Vietnam’s modern history. Huong’s grandmother would say that the challenges faced by the Vietnamese people were as tall as the tallest mountains, but if you stand far enough away to see the mountaintops, they will give you strength. 


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