Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai: The Mountains Sing

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s The Mountains Sing weaves together the family’s story of wars in Việt Nam from two personal accounts. Hương, the teenage granddaughter, recounts the conflict between North and South with the involvement of the American. Diệu Lan, the grandmother, recounts the French colonial period with the involvement of the Japanese. Although this is a historical work of fiction, the book provides a clear and balanced view of all parties involved. Ms. Nguyễn turns a blind eye to no side’s agenda, greed, or viciousness. The book is beautifully written, yet it is a heartbreaking read. Like Ms. Nguyễn, I have heard similar stories from the people around me. The cruelty, the grief, the loss, and the suffering hit too close to home.

What draws me into this novel is the way Ms. Nguyễn incorporated Vietnamese proverbs throughout the book. She uses phrases like, “Đừng ăn cháo đái bát.” (“Don’t eat porridge then piss into the bowl.”) or “Một giọt máu đào hơn ao nước lã.” (“One drop of familial blood outranks a pond of water.”) I also appreciate the use of Vietnamese diacritics in English text. If diacritics were omitted for the sake of English readers, the Vietnamese proverbs would have been so darn hard to decode.

In Vietnamese-relate books where the authors claimed that they intentionally left out Vietnamese diacritics to make non-Vietnamese readers feel less intimidated, the authors either didn’t know their Vietnamese or they tried to please their English readers. Diacritics don’t make any different to readers who do not know Vietnamese. Without diacritics, however, readers who can read Vietnamese are compromised. In her uncompromising way, Ms. Nguyễn has written this book for readers who appreciate both languages. I love her translations of the proverbs, which showed her mastery of both Vietnamese and English.

This is the first time I read the entire novel on my iPhone using the Kindle app. Although I still prefer a physical book, what made me stick with the Kindle was the Bookerly typeface, which I selected specifically for long-form reading. As I was reading this book, I discovered that Bookerly, designed by Dalton Magg, has excellent Vietnamese diacritics; therefore, I had to add it to my Vietnamese Typography recommendations.

With Ms. Nguyễn’s lyrical writing and poignant storytelling, The Mountains Sing is a page-turner. In my case, it was a screen-swiper. It is one of the most level-headed historical accounts of the Việt Nam Wars I have read in recent years.