18 Feb / The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai [in Booklist]
A granddaughter and her grandmother take turns narrating: “If our stories survive, we will not die, even when our bodies are no longer here on this earth.” What emerges is the ominous history of 20th-century Việt Nam told through four generations of a single family.
As a privileged 1930s teenager, Diệu Lan has a bright future overshadowed by a fortune teller’s prescient warning of “a very hard life.” The tragedies begin with her father’s gruesome murder by invading Japanese; her mother, husband, and brother also suffer separate, brutal deaths. Diệu Lan miraculously survives the mid-1940s famine of the Great Hunger and the savage 1950s Land Reform to raise her six children.
Fast forward to the 1970s, when Diệu Lan is again doing everything possible to keep a loved one alive, this time her only granddaughter, Hương, whose parents and uncles are missing at war. Some will return, almost unrecognizably damaged, to continuing conflicts even at home.
Widely published in Vietnamese, poet, nonfiction writer, and translator Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s first novel in English balances the unrelenting devastation of war with redemptive moments of surprising humanity.