As the Russian despot Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, I turned the last page of this novel in which the narrator’s grandmother relates decades of war in Vietnam. I have read non-fiction accounts of Vietnam and novels from the American soldier’s perspective, such as Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Written by a Vietnamese woman, The Mountains Sing is exceptional because it tells the story of the ravages of war from the perspective of ordinary families caught up in the maelstrom of foreign occupation, famine, land reform, and violence. The novel depicts North against South, brother against brother, comparable to the brutal carnage of the American Civil War.
The Ukrainians will resist and fight to the death for their homeland as the Vietnamese did against the French, the Japanese, and later the American interventionists in a domestic conflict aimed to unify the country. The novel begins in Hanoi during the 1972 bombing of the city. The grandmother flashes back to 1945 and 1955 as she relates her life’s story to her beloved granddaughter, and then flashes forward to 1975. The reunification of the family parallels the reunification of North and South Vietnam as the grandmother recounts the fate of her parents and her six children. One of her sons joins the fight on the side of the South and never returns home. Another son returns home, having lost his legs. Her youngest son fights for the North and survives the war to become a staunch Communist Party official. His mother says he has been brainwashed by propaganda.
The wise grandmother who struggles to survive after her land is confiscated and her house in Hanoi is destroyed says: I learned then that, in time of war, normal citizens were nothing but leaves that would fall in the thousands of millions in the surge of the storm. Throughout history, it seems that catastrophic wars occur because one despotic leader does not care how many people die in his quest for territorial expansion.
Nguyen Phan Que Mai’s great storytelling weaves an intergenerational plot with many twists and turns, often ending chapters with a cliffhanger and switching to another period, but all threads are eventually tied together through the image of the wooden bird her father carved for his daughter. Stories within stories underscore why people feel the need to tell them and why we bother to read novels in the first place. The grandmother affirms their importance, saying: If our stories survive, we will not die, even when our bodies are no longer here on this earth.
The Vietnamese sprinkle proverbs into everyday conversation — one of the delightful aspects of this novel told from the viewpoint of a North Vietnamese family. The author uses short, simple sentences laced with compelling imagery that vividly captures their suffering and the horrors of war. The grandmother picks up each grain of rice left in the rubble of her destroyed house as if they are jewels. That night the survivors of the bombing share a meal of rice mixed with dirt and blood. Huong, the granddaughter who narrates her grandmother’s stories, learns that the world is indeed unfair, but like her grandmother she must also know how to survive in that unfair world.
The wooden bird is the sign that Huong’s father, a war casualty, sends her to bolster her belief that love and beauty endure despite suffering and separation. This novel reveals how political leaders in nefarious ways propagandize and perpetuate divisions. The Vietnamese grandmother knows not to put faith in those leaders to save and protect her family. She must find means to do that herself. Nguyen Phan Que Mai conveys mankind’s universal desire to love and nurture their families, live in peace, obtain an education, and provide adequately for their physical needs.
The grandmother’s wisdom triumphs in the end. She distills the essence of a life well-lived in these words: But it didn’t matter how long or short we lived. It mattered how much light we were able to shed on those we loved and how many people we touched with our compassion. So do grandmothers in all cultures speak to their descendants.
Written in English, The Mountains Sing restores and uplifts, giving light to our shared humanity. If you have not read either a fictional or non-fictional book about Vietnam, start with this novel. It humanizes the history spanning the years 1945-2017.