First Impression Friday will be a meme where you talk about a book that you JUST STARTED! Maybe you’re only a chapter or two in, maybe a little farther. Based on this sampling of your current read, give a few impressions and predict what you’ll think by the end.
Set against the backdrop of the Viet Nam war, The Mountains Sing tells an intimate, enveloping story of four generations of the Tran family, as seen through the eyes of the matriarch, Tran Dieu Lan, and her granddaughter, Huong. Dieu Lan was forced by the Communists to flee her family’s prosperous farm during the Land Reform in 1955; with five of her six children she embarks on a perilous journey to keep them safe – and is forced to make unthinkable choices along the way. Years later, in Ha Noi, she survives the American bombardment with young Huong, whose parents and uncles have left to fight in the conflict that continues to tear both her family and her beloved country apart.
As Huong comes of age, awaiting word of her mother and father, Dieu Lan gradually reveals the secrets of her past, teaching her granddaughter in delible lessons about not only what it takes to survive but what it means to live with courage, grace, and compassion.
Page-turning, lyrical, and steeped in the language and traditions of Viet Nam, The Mountains Sing offers a moving account and spirit of resilience among the women and children left behind by war.
Vietnamese writer Nguyen Phan Que Mai’s The Mountains Sing is my fourth consecutive “new book”, i.e. book published in the same year. This is a bit unusual for me since I am more of a backlist reader but I am also building up on my “new books” resume so that I can get in with the conversation I guess. Anyway, I worked up because these four books were written by authors whose body of work are also foreign to me – Ilana Masad’s All My Mother’s Lovers, Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman, Colum McCann’s Apeirogon and The Mountains Sing.
It wasn’t my initial plan to read The Mountains Sing but after learning that it is a new book, I decided to dive in. Besides, it was written by a Vietnamese writer and I am slowly being reeled in towards Vietnamese literature after years of soaking in Japanese and Russian literature. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sympathizer and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous are both impressionable and splendid reads.
I guess splendid is not the right word for they both deal about a dark part of Vietnamese history, one element they share with The Mountains Sing. It couldn’t be denied that the universal perception of Vietnam will always be attached to the abhorrent word, “War”. Yes, these three narratives revolve around the Vietnam War, or in the case of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, influenced by it or attached to it. These works give modern readers how much the war has altered Vietnam and its people. In this alone, they are all seminal works.
The Mountains Sing initially brings the reader to 1970s Hanoi which is being bombarded by American fighter jets. There, the readers meet Dieu Lan and her granddaughter Huong, or “Guava” as she is fondly called. Huong was left to the care of her grandmother because both her mother and father embarked to help the propagandists’ cause, i.e. the “war”. Whilst under the care of Dieu Lan, Guava learns more about her grandmother’s history, one that she rarely shares, even to her own children. What she paints is a grisly and, well, bloody picture of modern Vietnamese history, from pre-World War II, slowly inching towards the 1970s. There are several graphic and vivid scenes, Nguyen perfectly capturing the horrors with her powerful prose.
I liked that, on the backdrop, Nguyen subtly wove intricate details and elements of Vietnamese culture. This is a stark dichotomy to the narrative’s foreground which was dominated by war, grief, and violence. I particularly liked how importance is attached to a person’s name and that each name is a reflection of the person. The narrative has several tiny details which enrich it without distracting the readers from the main point of the story.
There is one mystery that is keeping me in tenterhook. Dieu Lan and her eldest daughter, Ngoc (Guava’s mother) is depicted to have a stormy relationship. I know that Ngoc has a story to tell and I am not yet in that part. There is really something about mothers being the biggest casualty of the Vietnam War. I have noted the same in the two other books I have mentioned here. Apart from this, I hope to learn more about Vietnamese culture as Nguyen is doing a particularly great job of weaving it in the story.
I am really excited to know how this story develops, despite the funereal atmosphere. There really is a lot about the world that we don’t know and literature is doing a seminal job in bridging this gap. In my excitement, I just might finish the book over the weekend (even though I have a lot to do because you know, professional). How about you fellow reader, what book are you going to read this weekend? I hope it is a book that you’ve been looking forward to and I hope you enjoy it. Keep safe, and happy weekend!