The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai | Book Review

Historical fiction is a difficult genre to write in, especially because the times are so far back in the past that you have to be extremely careful with your research. You can’t disrespect the past while you write your story, and you have to get things exactly right. But when authors do get it right, they manage to blow you away in more ways than one and in ways you’ll often not see coming. Among this population of authors is Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, who, after seven years of research, published the book The Mountains Sing, a story set before and during the Việt Nam war. I became an instant fan of her when I finally read it in December 2022. And not just because of the book.

If our stories survive, we will not die, even when our bodies are no longer here on this earth.

The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai embodies this quote as Trần Diệu Lan tells the story of her life before and during the Việt Nam War to her granddaughter, Hương. As grandmother and granddaughter struggle to stay alive in the absence of their family, who have now scattered across regions fighting in the war, we are met with conflicts, tough decisions to be made, strength, and social ostracization. But most of all, as Diệu Lan narrates her story to her granddaughter, we see the layers of her character unravel and all the trauma and tragedy that she’s been carrying on her back.

I’m always speechless when it comes to talking about this book because Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai writes so, so beautifully! While talking – and consequently educating me – about the war and conflict that raged Việt Nam for over 2 decades, she retains the humanity in her characters. She treats them with kindness and compassion, with reason that will make you feel ashamed for getting angry at the situation. But her writing doesn’t berate you for that anger, because it understands you for it and as an extension, I feel like the author does too.

Yet, her kindness wins out. It makes you understand that wartime changes people. Conflict shifts something in everyone. People do during war what they would never do otherwise, because survival is paramount during times like these. And through it all, she shows how despite survival being what one fights for, one should never forget their roots, one should never forget where they came from, and most importantly, one should never forget their humanity. Because losing that will mean losing yourself. If it doesn’t happen now, it will come sometime or the other.

From the dust rising as the earth is bombed to class differences painting an even more sordid picture during wartime to propagandists using impressionable people to further their agenda to the fluidity of human nature to wartime trauma – Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai tackles all of this kindly, beautifully, powerfully – the seven years of hard work that went into this book paying off beautifully as the story captures the Vietnamese agony of having to be pushed into conflict time and time again by colonizers from different lands, leaving us wondering as a character does:

“I wondered why foreign armies kept invading our country. First it was the Chinese, the Mongolians, the French, the Japanese, and now the American imperialists.

The Mountains Sing is a paradox unto itself, because while I sat there for a long time, trying to write a review, thinking about how much I loved the book and all the things I want to say, I’m still at a loss for words. As much as it is a story of love, light, and strength, it is equally the story of war, trauma, and tragedy. As much as it is about what you’d suppose was the beauty of mountains singing, the actual songs are as grim as they come. As much as it is about the bonds that connect family, it is equally about how severing those very bonds would be best in certain circumstnces. And all of these coexist in this story in a way that will nestle deep within you, becoming a part of you as you never thought they would.

“There’s only one way we can talk about wars: honestly. Only through honesty can we learn about the truth,” the author says.

And she unequivocally practices it in The Mountains Sing.

In an added note, I’d like to mention that the beauty of The Mountains Sing comes wholly from the author herself. Only a person like her could have written such a kind, compassionate account of wartime. There’s so much love and effort that has gone into this book, and you know this especially because of how effortless it sounds. And that’s a marker of how talented the author is. Not just that, she’s such a kind, beautiful person, putting kindness into her stories – both literary as well as on Instagram, and appreciating her readers as much as they appreciate her. It’s always a delight to interact with her. While reading the book made me fall in love with her writing and found me a new favorite author, interacting with her and telling her how much I love the book and watching as she sent that love right back to me found me a new favorite person in the world.

The world needs more people like Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai. ❤

You can find this review on Instagram as well. Here’s the link: TMB Review of The Mountains Sing on Instagram.

So what did you think of my review of The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai? Have you read the book? Did you like it? Let me know what you think in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you!

I’ll see you in the next blog post.

Until next time, keep reading and add melodrama to your life. 😊

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