Monday 28 August 2023

The Mountains Sing

Finished August 24
The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

Covering nearly a century, this is a tale of one family, the Tran family, through multiple generations in Vietnam. Told by grandmother Dieu Lan who was born in 1920, and her granddaughter Huong, born in 1960, this story is also a history of Vietnam during the 20th century. Dieu Lan was a farmer, a teacher,  and finally a trader, the last a profession frowned upon by the government, but one that was more lucrative than her former teaching job. 
We see Dieu Lan's story as she relates it to Huong after they've survived the Vietnam War and Huong is struggling to understand her family as they all deal with the traumas they've undergone. 
The first is the time of Great Hunger, when the Tran's and their neighbours are dying due to lack of food. Two neighbours emerge from this time as close supporters from then on, Mrs. Tu, who takes on a role as a sort of honorary grandmother and housekeeper for the family; and Mr. Hai, who helps them find a source of food. Dieu Lan's father treated her as an equal to his song Cong and both her and Cong make good marriages. When she, Cong, and their father were taking a load of potatoes to market, they find themselves attacked by Japanese soldiers who have moved into their area, and her father is killed. 
Cong and Dieu Lan escape, but the event is a blow to the family, and soon after that the Vietnam forces that liberate them from the Japanese occupation engage in an act of Land Reform, and disgruntled peasants turn on all landowners, even those who treated their workers well, and landowners were driven from their homes and land, and, in many cases killed. Dieu Lan loses more family members during this time. 
Dieu Lan must find a way forward with her remaining family members. She had six children: Minh, born in 1938, who may have escaped with his life, but she loses contact with; Ngoc, born in 1940, and became a doctor, who goes on to marry Hoang and is the mother of Huong who also tells a large portion of the story of this book; Dat, born in 1941 and left his girlfriend Nhung to go to war against the Americans; Thuan, born in 1947, who also went to war; Hanh, born in 1948, who found a life in Saigon; and Sang, born in 1954 and who was still an infant as the family fled.
During the war, Huong was with her grandmother in Ha Noi, but they often fled to the nearby mountains during bombing attacks, sometimes for long periods. When they returned to the city, they had to rebuild and hope that the other family members who had left to either fight in the war or support those who were fighting will return home. Some do, but all suffer from trauma of different types. 
The author is a well-regarded poet and the writing here shows her skill with language and storytelling. 
I was totally captured by the story and the family members' stories, wanting to know how each one dealt with their issues and found a way forward. 
A book that was both enlightening and captivating. 

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