Book review: The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

The Mountains Sing is a beautifully written novel recounting a two-generation family story in Vietnam.


The heart of the book is the grandmother, Dieu Lan, telling her granddaughter the reason for not revealing that her husband and brother were murdered and her eldest son torn from her during the ruling regime’s land reform 20 years earlier. She tells how they were forbidden to speak about events related to the past. But now, she feels it is necessary, to tell the truth.

The Mountains Sing is the first novel in English by the Vietnamese poet Nguyen Phan Que Mai. The narrative takes place in the early 1970s in Hanoi. American bombs are dropping around them. Dieu Lan entrusts to Guava the harrowing story of her life. She recounts the resistance and survival in the face of dispossession, colonisation, foreign invasion and civil war. This involved making the most heartbreaking and terrifying yet brave decisions to try and keep her children safe. She faced hatred and vast acts of violence against her family. But she also came across compassion and courage from others. The novel describes how the land Reform and wars destroyed families and caused dissent between family members.

It is only recently that authors and poets have felt safe enough to write about the realities of the past. It has been a dangerous territory to tread.

It is a beautifully written account of a time that is hard for me to imagine living through, although I remember watching the events of the Vietnam war unfold in the ’70s. But for me, it seemed worlds away but having read this novel; the realities have indeed been brought home.

When I travelled through Vietnam many years ago, I was amazed how the North and South had unified in such a short space of time. It is truly a beautiful country.