I was gifted a free eARC* of this book by the publisher, via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.
*eARC: electronic Advance Review Copy
When I requested this book on NetGalley, I was unaware that Own Voices reviewers were regularly being declined for OV books. In future I will be more mindful when requesting, and I truly hope that me being granted this book didn’t take away an opportunity from an OV reviewer. I still wanted to read and review this book to hopefully shine a spotlight on it, and I didn’t want the book to lose the chance of a review as I felt that would be unfair to the author.
Title: The Mountains Sing
Author: Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
Publisher: OneWorld Publications
Release Date: August 20th
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction
TWs: War (violence, death, injuries, famine), murder, assault (including sexual).
Before I read this book, I knew woefully little about the events of the Việt Nam War. Now I feel like I have a better grasp on how the war affected the country and the Vietnamese people. It’s a topic I want to learn more about, so if you happen to know of any good nonfiction books that you could recommend, please let me know in the comments! I will of course also look some up myself. As you’ll have gathered, then, The Mountains Sing takes place during the Vietnam war, and follows the story of one particular family. The majority of the book doesn’t depict scenes of war as the protagonist, Hương, is a young girl, living with her grandmother after her uncles, father and mother are away. Her fathers and uncles were drafted into the war, while her mother went to look for her father, years after their last contact with him. Hương’s grandmother, Diệu Lan’s perspective, is also very prominent in the book as she tells her granddaughter about her experience as a young woman living in Việt Nam during the time of the communist government and land reform.
This is a very heavy book, particularly Diệu Lan’s sections, and I would definitely only recommend this to adult readers who feel comfortable reading books with the aforementioned trigger warnings. Diệu Lan’s story is scattered throughout the narrative, telling the story of the tragedies that befell her family when she was young. Her tale climaxes when her family farm is taken over during the Land Reform and she is forced to take her young children and flee, posing as a poor beggar to avoid being found to be a wealthy landlord and executed. By interspersing these heavy segments throughout the narrative, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai allows the reader respites from the horrific tragedies of Diệu Lan’s past. The ‘present day’ (though still for the reader historical) sections focus more on Hương, or Guava as her grandmother nicknames her.
The Hương chapters are often very heartwarming, yet still have the sense of danger, loss and despair that war brings. One of my favourite parts of the novel was reading the relationship between Hương and her grandmother. They have a very close relationship, and their love for one another and the rest of their family members was such a strong presence throughout the novel. Despite the war, and the fear, their lives must go on, and they manage to find elements of brightness to celebrate. The sense of longing for their family to be reunited is a really strong thread throughout the novel, and is the central theme that ties together the stories of Hương and Diệu Lan.
The writing of this book was really impressive, and I really want to read more by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai. It’s beautiful and lyrical, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that she has a poetic background. There are Vietnamese phrases throughout the novel, which is something I really like seeing included in books. This didn’t detract from the flow of the novel at all for me, and the writing was so strong and engaging throughout that I found it really hard to put this book down. The pacing of this book as well was really strong. So much happens in this book, but nothing felt rushed to me. It’s definitely faster paced than a lot of the books I read and I really liked reading something that’s quite different to what I usually pick up.
The characters in this story are all really interesting. I’m not Vietnamese so I obviously won’t comment on how accurate they may be, but as the author is Vietnamese I assume and hope that it is a good representation of the people and their culture. The family relationships depicted in The Mountains Sing were often very complex, which I really enjoyed reading. Despite secrets, miscommunications, political differences, separations and fights, their unconditional love (particularly on the part of Diệu Lan) is really evident. As well as being well-developed characters to start with, the characters’ development throughout the novel is some of the most well-written and engaging I’ve read for quite a while.
Overall, I really enjoyed The Mountains Sing, if you couldn’t tell. The subject matter is really heavy, but it’s a really important topic to write about. The writing, pacing and characters were just all so impressive, and I would love to read more novels by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai if she ever publishes them! She has previously published poetry, but this is her first novel. I believe in some countries it is already available, but it’s released in the UK on August 20th.
This review also published on NetGalley, GoodReads and The StoryGraph