‘I saw the other side of them’: The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

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We break from our regular SF Month and Novellas In November programming to bring you this somewhat ranty review.

The Mountains Sing tells the story of the Vietnam War through the perspective of three generations of a relatively wealthy Vietnamese family living in the North. Although it touches on the occupation of the country by the French and the Japanese, the bulk of the novel is focused on the rise of Communism and the splitting of Vietnam between a US-backed South and a Communist-backed North. The novel is narrated in alternate chapters by Diệu Lan, who relates her experience of the Land Reform of the mid-1950s, and her granddaughter Hương, who grows up in the 1970s as the US withdraw from Vietnam but fighting continues. This Goodreads review perfectly sums up my reservations about this kind of inter-generational ‘history of a non-Western country novel’; while they can be amazing (Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, Lisa See’s The Island of Sea WomenJing-Jing Lee’s How We Disappearedand while not a novel, Jung Chang’s Wild Swans) they can also be simplistic stories of suffering that seem to be designed to make Western audiences feel good about themselves while saying very little else.

Typically, these novels fail to distinguish one character from another; the different members of the cast are defined entirely by what has happened to them, not who they are. Some are at least good on historical detail while others are much sketchier. The Mountains Sing falls into this category. I learnt surprisingly little about Vietnam or the Vietnam War from reading it. Of course, this doesn’t have to be a novelist’s job, but it doesn’t really work as a novel either – none of the characters have any distinguishing traits and I wasn’t sure why Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai chose to switch between Diệu Lan’s and Hương’s narratives – every time I was sinking into one, I’d get dragged back to the other, and because their voices are exactly the same, I easily became confused. I also found the take on the Vietnam War so simplistic as to be problematic. My knowledge of the war is very poor, but Quế Mai’s approach seems to be summed up by this quotation from about halfway through the novel, after Hương listens to her uncle’s story of an encounter with American soldiers: ‘What my uncle said made me think. I had resented America, too. But by reading their books [Hương is a fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House In The Big Woods], I saw the other side of them – their humanity. Somehow I was sure that if people were willing to read each other, and see the light of other cultures, there would be no war on earth.’

I mean, really? The novel consistently refuses to talk about structural power or exploitation, and is much keener to describe Communist atrocities against rich landowners then to focus on the American role in the war. And while I don’t know enough about the Land Reform to judge Quế Mai’s account of it, I felt uncomfortable with the consistent dehumanisation of the family’s poorer neighbours, who are all portrayed as evil, greedy and animalistic. In contrast, Diệu Lan’s family are saints who help out their village by installing a water pump. You don’t have to be a communist to feel a little uneasy that this book seems to be totally happy with the existing social inequalities and so disgusted at the villagers who aren’t as fortunate as Diệu Lan. And with all their talk about reaching out to invading Americans, the family find it much harder to forgive Uncle Minh (Diệu Lan’s oldest son) who ended up fighting for the South during the war. This could very much be a realistic character choice (easier to blame each other than the real oppressors), but I wanted to see this explored by Quế Mai. As it stands, The Mountains Sing seems likely to confirm stereotypes rather than to challenge them. In many ways, it seems to me an example of writing for your worst possible reader rather than for your best.

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9 thoughts on “‘I saw the other side of them’: The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

  1. Whilst I will most definitely be giving this one a miss, I am glad that this post pointed me to your review of The Island of Sea Woman. I am fascinated by haenyo and I have a couple of historical fiction books about them on my TBR – Lisa See’s novel being one. I am even more excited to get around to it now.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The In Or Out Book Tag | Laura Tisdall

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