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Review – “The Mountains Sing” by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

Somehow I was sure that if people were willing to read each other, and see the light of their cultures, there would be no war on Earth.

Ever wondered how blessed you are? To sit in your own house, lie down on your bed, and have this mobile or laptop on which you are reading my blog? I do a lot. I think a lot. I shiver when I think about how terrible it must be to live somewhere where the wheezing of the bomb puts you to sleep instead of their mother’s lullaby, how going out of the house means that it might be the last time you see your loved ones, how you must live on the edge, ready to evacuate the house, the land, the city, the country of your ancestors at the drop of a hat (or a bomb) I think a lot. And I feel grateful for the life I have despite its many problems that seem unsolvable to me. And I feel blessed, to have everything that I have been given.
The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai is a heart-rendering journey of a young girl and her grandmother, through the Land Reform of decades ago, through the Viet Nam War, and through the years of turmoil that has riddled their beloved country and its people.

As silence befell their area, Huong and her grandmother Dieu Lan crawled out of the underground shelter they were in. Soaking wet from the muddy water that filled the hole that had saved their lives, they found themselves making their way amongst the rubble and mangled human bodies towards their house, only to find it flattened beyond salvation. Their much-loved bang tree, uprooted, its roots pointing towards the sky from which its killer landed. 
Now living under a makeshift shanty on their land, the grandma-grand daughter duo faced hardships that left them making the hardest decisions of their lives. To let go of their dreams, to let go of their friends, to let go of their respect in order to survive for their kin who would one day return from the front lines of the war that was raging in their country. 

With the plethora of war stories available these days, it is quite difficult for an author to make an impression on the reader, more so when a reader like me loves a good story (not sadist pleasure good) with a strong narration and shoots down everything that reeks of the cash cow. This book caught my attention on IG. Recommended by a lot of people whom I follow for the kind of books they choose, this book finally found its way to my shelf, one fine day when the Covid second wave had taken its toll on me and I found solace on Amazon.
Written in simple and casual (that is my way of describing a text which uses words like cute, hey, cutie, etc. a lot!) English, the narrative follows both Huang and Dieu Lan as they tell their story. Chapters are interspersed between the past and the present, linking their lives together, moving towards the ultimate goal, peace. Characters are aplenty, in fact, the protagonists’ family is so large that is several references to the family tree are required, LOL. but despite this, none of them seem irrelevant. Each has a role, a definitive role to play in the story. Every character amounts to something towards the lives of the members of the Tran family and their long journey of almost 60 years. Few characters are pushed aside just like that after their work is done but that’s that.
Talking of characters, I must say that they are the most real ones I’ve come across. They get so real at times, I felt I was looking into the mirror. They were strong-willed but faltered when tragedy hit, their survival instinct was the strongest in the face of adversity, even if it meant losing their morales, their own problems seemed larger than anyone else’s and for them, their constant struggles were proof that no one was with them, hence their anger towards them, while “them” were themselves struggling in worse conditions than theirs. Like us, they forgot their people once they were out, in a better place, and looking to save their own necks first came easily. Standing up for their own ideals and cutting ties with their blood and bone seemed commonplace. All these things that make us human, made these people on paper humane. As we read on, layers upon layers of Viet Namese history and culture are peeled off. Their troubled past of French colonization, communism, and the war take hold of the lives of several generations, some of whom to date, suffer. With this book, the author exposes what her country was, and what it was left to after everyone had their share from the fruitful tree which it was. 
Having said all of the above, I must also warn that the story does have elements of too good to be true aka Bollywood type. Things break only to be repaired, trouble arises only for the main characters, the emotions seem a tad bit dramatic sometimes, and towards the end, the story felt rushed, as if it couldn’t wait for the reader to catch up after the slow ride that they had been riding. Nevertheless, I’d give credit to the author to even attempt writing a book that shows just how troubled and only troubled a country can get.
This was my first ever book on Viet Nam, and by an author who is a native of the country. Reading her words, however imperfect they were, made me realize the beauty of the written word and the power it holds. Her story is riddled with verses from her mother tongue. Let alone understand, I couldn’t even read them because of the dialect. But with the ease with which she translated them into English for readers like us made it easier to relate. Definitely going to recommend this book, especially for beginners like me who have barely scratched the surface of the world’s history. 

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