Việt-Nam 1972. Hương and her grandmother Trần Diệu Lan cling to one another in their improvised shelter in
Hà Nội as American bombs fall, while her father and mother head south to fight a war that is tearing their country and their family apart.
For Diệu Lan, forced to flee the family farm with her six children decades earlier, when the Communists rose to power in the North, this experience is all too familiar.
Seen through the eyes of these two unforgettable women, ‘The Mountains Sing’ captures one family’s defiance and determination, hope and unexpected joy.
Against the background history of French colonisation, the Great Hunger, the Japanese Occupation, The French Indochina War, Land Reform and the war between North and South Vietnam, this deeply moving, haunting, complex and disturbing story follows the fortunes of the Trần family from the 1920’s to 2017. These turbulent periods of history are brought alive through accounts of the impact they had had, not only on the Trần family but on the population as a whole.
The main part of the story opens in Hà Nội in 1972, with twelve-year-old Hương being walked to school by Diệu Lan, her fifty-two-year old grandmother, in whose care she has been left because her mother, a doctor, had travelled south three months earlier to look for her husband. He had left four years ago to fight in the war but the family has had no news of him since. As they walk the sirens sound, announcing an imminent bombing attack from American planes and they frantically search for a bomb-shelter which has space for them. The image of Diệu Lan carrying her granddaughter on her back as she races to eventually find safety in the school, offers the first intimation of the strength and resilience of this remarkable woman.
When the bombing raid ended many people had been killed and many buildings destroyed and, although their home remained undamaged, the city was no longer a safe place for them to stay. People were ordered to evacuate and Diệu Lan, a teacher, was charged with leading her students and their families to a village in the mountains, forty-one kilometres away. Hương reflects that after her mother left – That night and for the next many nights, to dry my tears, Grandma opened the door of her childhood to me…As the war continued, it was Grandma’s stories that kept me and my hopes alive. Diệu Lan impresses on her granddaughter the importance of bearing witness – Do you understand why I’ve decided to tell you about our family? If our stories survive, we will not die, even when our bodies are no longer here on earth. Through the alternating narratives of these two characters, the reader follows their fate during the next eight years, as they await the return from war, or news, of each of Diệu Lan’s six children, one of whom is Hương’s mother.
I don’t want to go into any detail about the stories which emerge because the power of this outstanding novel lies in the gradual revelations of just how many personal challenges this family has had to deal with, as well as the impact that invasion, war and communism has had, not only on them but on the population as a whole. The switches between the narrative voices and different timelines were handled well, allowing the author to create an impressive depth to her portrayal of her unforgettable characters. I totally fell in love with Diệu Lan and felt in awe of her resilience, courage and determination in the face of so many challenges throughout her life. She was prepared to do whatever it took to survive and yet refused to give up hope or to lose faith in people. Her relationship with Hương felt authentically warm and loving and I loved the fact that she encouraged her granddaughter to continue with her education and to read books (including banned American novels!) to not only gain knowledge and understanding, but to find comfort and escape when times were difficult – who wouldn’t love a grandma like that! She was so full of wisdom and the story is full of memorable quotes but one of my favourites is when she told Hương – The challenges faced by Vietnamese people throughout history are as tall as the tallest mountains. If you stand too close, you won’t be able to see their peaks. Once you step away from the currents of life, you will have the full view…”
The author, born in 1973, describes her novel as my search for lost Vietnamese history and admits to having written it with everything I had. The character of Hương is based on her own experience of growing up in Việt-Nam and witnessing the war’s devastating effect but, for the author, she also represents a whole generation of her compatriots who have no choice but to inherit the trauma of war brought home by returning soldiers. Her own grandmothers died before she was born but she had always wanted a grandma who would tell her stories of her family, legends and tales of her village and sing her lullabies, so she created Grandma Diệu Lan for Hương.
Through drawing on her own family history, incorporating this with stories from other survivors and by using her considerable research into the history of her country, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai has given me rich and intimate insights into a world most of us have only ever seen through images on our television sets and reports in newspapers. I very clearly recall being horrified by the Việt-Nam War and by the contemporary reports of all the bombing and the use of chemical warfare, which was not only immediately devastating but left a legacy of so many long-term effects on people, as well as on flora and fauna. However, my understanding of the wider history of the country was sketchy, but reading this remarkable novel has not only broadened my knowledge but has left me keen to learn more.
I loved learning about the rich and varied culture, customs, beliefs and legends of Việt-Nam and enjoyed the author’s evocative descriptions of food and of the landscape. I also appreciated that she included all the diacritical marks with the Vietnamese names and words because, for me, these added an extra layer of authenticity to the story – and I liked that she respected her readers enough not to anglicize names and words.
The author’s writing is hauntingly beautiful, and the story throughout is very moving, bringing alive in sharp focus the suffering experienced by individuals and families during periods of occupation and war. There were moments when some of the accounts of hardship, brutality and personal sacrifice felt almost too hard to read, and on several occasions I found myself in tears. However, it’s a story which never felt despairing but is, instead, full of hope, optimism and joy and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
With so many thought-provoking themes this would be an ideal choice for book groups.
Review by Linda Hepworth
Personal read: 5*
Group Read: 5*
Oneworld Publications 20th August 2020