Chosen by Linda Hepworth

As we near the end of a year which has forced everyone to live, to some degree or another, a socially-isolated existence, I find myself reflecting that never have books and stories felt more essential to my mental well-being. I’m fortunate enough to live off-road, in a scenically beautiful area high in the hills of the North Pennines, with a large garden and surrounded by open spaces in which to enjoy long walks, making it easy to follow the social-distancing policy which has now become our new ‘normal’. However, as the months have gone by, what I have increasingly missed is the freedom to spontaneously meet up with friends and family, to enjoy eating-out, visits to the theatre, concerts … and book festivals! So, this year more than ever, I’ve appreciated the opportunities reading offers to ‘escape’, to temporarily inhabit different worlds and explore alternative lives. Whatever else has been happening during the day, there’s always been the comforting prospect of an evening spent snuggled on the sofa, feet tucked under me, ready to lose myself in a book for a few hours – and, even more comforting as winter approaches, is being able to do that in front of a roaring log fire!

Whenever I’m asked what my ‘absolute favourite’ book of the year has been, I usually struggle to come up with an answer. However, this year it was easy to decide on Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s The Mountains Sing. Two things attracted me to it: the first being that, as the story covers the whole of the turbulent twentieth-century history of Việt-Nam, not just the more familiar American involvement in the war between the divided North and South, I would learn something new. The second was its intriguing title and beautiful cover – yes, I know all about not judging a book by its cover but in this case my expectations were more than fulfilled!

Told from the alternating perspectives of a grandmother and her granddaughter, the story follows the fortunes of the Trần family from the 1920s to 2017, bringing history alive through accounts of the hardships faced not only by their family, but by the population as a whole. It captured the resilience and courage of individuals who not only refused to give in to the horrors and privations they experienced, but who were able to maintain hope, a belief that things would get better.

I think that one of the reasons it has resonated so strongly with me is because of its exploration of how people cope when faced with unexpected, catastrophic events which are totally out of their control. It was hard not to draw parallels with what everyone in the world is facing at the moment as we all deal with the devastating effects of this pandemic, as we face the actual, or potential, loss of people we love. Reading this story about two brave, resilient women felt like a timely reminder that life will, eventually, become easier – let’s all look forward to 2021!

Publisher: One World
Date of Publication: 20th August 2020
ISBN 13: 978-1-78607-922-0
Edition: Hardback