Review: The Mountains Sing

3.5 stars

THE PLOT: The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai is historical fiction set in Vietnam. Covering several generations of the same family, the story goes back and forth between two storylines. The main character, Hương, waits from her parents and uncles to return from the war with America in the 1970’s. Meanwhile her grandma tells her about the Great Hunger and Land Reform as communism sweeps the north of the country in the 1940’s and 1950’s. In both storylines, women try to hold their families together but will they ever be fully reunited with their loved ones?

RATING: This was one of my most anticipated books of the year. It has all the elements I love in a novel: multiple storylines, historical, political and social upheaval, centring female POC characters, and complex family dynamics. However, it pains me to give this book three and a half stars because it didn’t hit the way I expected. Don’t get me wrong, this is a great story. But the way the story was told didn’t work for me. The storytelling felt very passive and we never got to know the characters’ souls. Overall, a good read but sadly not a brilliant one.

GOOD BITS: This book had the potential to be fantastic. The basic storyline, including the parallels between the generations and the epic hardships each character faces, is extremely compelling. I’ve mostly experienced stories about the Vietnam War through a U.S. perspective, so getting the emotions of the soldiers who believe they are saving their country from imperialists was very revealing and I liked how the narrative was flipped.

NOT SO GOOD BITS: Usually I’m a big fan of multiple storylines and moving back and forth in time. However, the first-person past-tense voice and moving structure fell flat. It meant we didn’t get to know the characters as the narrator would introduce aunts and uncles, but we never got to know what they really thought beyond them telling their backstories without much subtlety. Frankly, there was a lot of telling and not showing. If it was a linear narrative in the present tense (with multiple POVs for each family member), I think we would’ve got to grow with the characters and truly love them. I would’ve preferred a structure like ‘Pachinko’ or ‘A Little Life’.

OVERALL:  I want to reiterate that this is a good book and I don’t want to put other people off if they’re interested in the themes. Therefore, I’d recommend this to lovers of ‘Pachinko’ by Min Jin Lee, ‘Homegoing’ by Yaa Gyasi or ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ by Arthur Golden. And, it’s inspired me to research other Vietnamese authors/stories, such as ‘The Sorrow of War’ by Bao Ninh and ‘The Sympathiser’ by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which are now on my ‘to-read’ list.