Welcome to my stop on the blog tour for Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s The Mountains Sing. I have to admit my stop was actually scheduled for Tuesday, March 17, but the world has a way of taking over sometimes. Tuesday was the first day that our entire office began working from home due to that nasty ol’ COVID-19, and things were a little chaotic. I just flat forgot about the blog tour until today, but this is a fine book that deserves many kudos, so better late than never I say! Kick back and let me bend your ear about this one.
Tiny, beautiful Viet Nam. A country seemingly forever at war, and a watershed moment in the course of our own history. In Vietnamese mountains and jungles, so many fought and died. We asked why, did not buy the answers, and we changed. In a worldwide dispersal, countless Vietnamese refugees left their country for ours and others, and we changed. Never the same, but, you see, we didn’t know Viet Nam then, and we don’t know it now. Many of us don’t, anyway. Most of us, perhaps. For anyone who remembers our involvement in Viet Nam, anyone who wants to more fully understand that dark, unsettling time, The Mountains Sing is a must. For everyone who simply wants to read an extraordinary book, what can I say except “this one”. Here it is.
Vietnamese native Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s novel reverses our perspective as we view her struggling country through Vietnamese eyes, those of the Tran family and, in particular, the family matriarch Dieu Lan and her granddaughter, twelve-year-old Huong. Huong’s father is away at war and no one knows if he is alive or dead. When her mother, a doctor, goes south to find him, she leaves Huong with her grandmother, a strong, strong woman who is a teacher and, in her youth, a beauty, a “jade leaf on a branch of gold”. According to Vietnamese tradition, she calls Huong by a nickname, Guava, to guard her from evil spirits. They lose their home to American bombs, depend on the kindness of their countrymen and experience their cruelty as well. Run, hide, take shelter, survive. Through it all, Dieu Lan steadies and supports Huong with stories of her own life, their family and their homeland, its history and its people, and it is in this way that we, as readers, experience life through four generations in this war-torn country. Beauty and brutality. Guilt and innocence. Pain and hope. Huong finds comfort and strength in her grandmother’s stories and Vietnamese proverbs, as do we. “Intact leaves safeguard ripped leaves.” “One bite when starving equals one bundle when full.” We lose ourselves in Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s lyrical prose, and we learn.
Reading such a book as this reminds me that perhaps American readers are not as cognizant of international authors as we could be, of the value and insight they bring to our world view. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai is also an award-winning poet, and it shows in her amazing book, so Asian in character yet so wondrously written in English by this non-native speaker. Lovely. And we learn. We learn and re-learn what we already knew, what we instinctively know – surely we do. That war is hell for both “sides”, that family is strength and love, that people are only people after all. Let The Mountains Sing remind you just how good a book can be and why we love them so. Explore international authors beginning here. Read this one.
Thanks so much to Kelly Doyle at Algonquin Books for inviting me to participate in the blog tour for The Mountains Sing. And even bigger thanks to Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai for creating this masterpiece for us all to savor and enjoy. All opinions expressed herein are my own.