Just before Christmas 2020 I saw one book review of The Mountains Sing on Instagram. Then, I saw another. And another.
After reading the reviews I knew it was a multi-generational story set during the turbulent 20th-century history of Vietnam. I wasn’t sure I wanted to approach such a topic over the holidays, but the reviews were compelling.
I overruled my gut on this one, and I’m so glad that I did!
About The Mountains Sing
“I was astonished when Grandma told me…how she had survived the French occupation, the Japanese invasion, the Great Hunger, and the Land Reform.”
Those words might be a line from a history book describing a chronological sequence of events. Instead, The Mountains Sing attaches the events’ impact and significance to the Tran family. This makes readers follow the horror with an intensely personal understanding of what is at stake.
No character accomplishes this more than the family matriarch, and primary storyteller, Grandma Tran. As she cares for her granddaughter, Huong, she begins to tell her own history.
The Mountains Sing is first the story of Dieu Lan (Grandma Tran) overcoming loss, poverty, ideology, and brutality. As readers, and Huong, listen, they see Grandma Tran grow in strength of conviction, resilience, and compassion. Her life’s circumstances are heartbreaking, but Dieu Lan’s insistence on maintaining her perspective and agency pulls the narrative toward hope.
Huong absorbs these lessons with attention, but her focus is waiting for her family to return from war. The Mountains Sing is also her story.
The return of the middle generation in various forms and nightmares pushes the family, and Huong’s coming-of-age narrative, to their stretching point.
Each son/uncle/husband and grandmother/daughter/granddaughter has had to make difficult and horrifying choices. The battle-weary family struggles to forgive and change and love.
My Review of The Mountains Sing
Fiction that forces me into a perspective that I have not considered before is almost always my favorite kind. Indeed, my familiarity with Vietnam’s history is limited to a smattering of disconnected lessons while in school. The Mountains Sing brings the landscape and lifestyle of twentieth century Vietnam to life through language and exquisite details.
But it also relentlessly brings to the surface a challenge to the characters and the reader to ask, “Who is ‘the enemy’?” From an early scene with a captured American pilot to the battle stories of returned family to the reunion of a long-lost son, this question repeats again and again.
More poignantly, The Mountains Sing reiterates over and over the importance of individual agency even within the confines of institutional oppression. Grandma Tran in particular faces the evils of her history and must choose again and again how she will respond.
Whether it’s refusal to teach an ideology, refusal to ignore a son who has joined the Communist party, or painful forgiveness for the vile enemy who killed her mother, Grandma Tran reckons with unimaginable choices. But! She chooses.
The Mountains Sing is lyrically written and expertly paced. The contrasting of Grandma Tran’s choices for agency with others who give uncritical party allegiance is clever. The story is compelling.
If you’d like to see what else I’m reading or find other short book recommendations, find me on Instagram @rebeccarvincent.