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Books in Review, May/June 2020

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‘The Mountains Sing’:
Singing Amid the Horrors of War

The Mountain SingNot long after I began reading The Mountains Sing (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 342 pp. $26.95), the Vietnamese-born poet and novelist Nguyen Phan Que Mai’s stunning new novel, the popular early 1970s antiwar slogan “War is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things” popped into my head. And it stayed there throughout this multi-generational tale that focuses on a large Vietnamese family from the 1940s to the 1970s.

How could it not? The fast-moving story that Que Mai spills out is filled with countless examples of decidedly non-healthy events that befall Vietnamese civilian men, women, and children during that turbulent period. This book graphically and strikingly shows how children and other civilians suffered almost unimaginable horrors at the hands of every government and military force during those decades: French colonial rulers, occupying Japanese troops during World War II, the American military (especially, as the family lives in northern Vietnam, through B-52 bomb strikes), the armies and governments of both South and North Vietnam, and the post-1975 communist Vietnamese government.

This often lyrical novel, filled with vivid characters and evocative depictions of the Vietnamese landscape, both urban and rural, is loosely based on the author’s own family’s experiences with the Indochinese wars and the peace that came in 1975. Born into poverty in a small village in northern Vietnam in 1973, Nguyen Phan Que Mai and her family moved to the Mekong Delta in 1979. Her life changed markedly after she took advantage of free English lessons at her school and won a scholarship to study in Australia.

Returning home after finishing her education, Que Mai worked for several NGOs, focusing on sustainable development and the continuing impact of war on the civilian population. She has gone on to write eight books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in Vietnamese. The Mountains Sing is her first novel in English.

And what a novel. One only hopes that her real grandmother didn’t face a fraction of the heartbreak that the novel’s protagonist, Tran Dieu Lan, endures. The book chronicles a long series of soul-searing events that bring various forms of catastrophes to her and her parents, as well as to her husband, children, and grandchildren.  

During the ill-conceived land-reform program the victorious Viet Minh savagely implemented in North Vietnam in 1955, Tran Dieu Lan and her family’s world is shattered when neighbors and communist cadres violently confiscate their modest farm. Tran Dieu is forced to flee for her life, along with her five children. They undertake a harrowing journey filled with unspeakable physical and emotional terrors.

One of Tran Dieu Lan’s daughters, a medical doctor, later joins the North Vietnamese Army, serves for years during the height of the American War, and comes home a physical and emotional wreck. Her soldier husband also disappears into the maw of war. They leave their young daughter behind with her grandmother. Years go by with no word from the couple. When the mother returns to the family, she is suffering from PTSD so severely that she goes into self-imposed exile to try to recuperate.

One of her sons, who wound up joining the ARVN, is found living in extreme poverty and on the verge of death in 1979 in Saigon after having been viciously persecuted by the victorious communists in 1975. Another son returns from the war minus two legs.

That son, whose name is Dat, also has extreme emotional problems, but is nursed back to mental health by his mother, his young niece Huang, and his pre-war girlfriend. Dat has a special relationship with Huang, who is haunted by her missing father’s fate. She learns that Dat met up briefly with her father during the war and he gave him something for her, a special object that gives this book its title.

“A bird,” Que Mai writes. “An exquisitely carved bird. Chiseled from wood, it stood on a square base, its wings open, its neck craning forward as if ready to burst into a song.” On its base her father carved an inscription to her, along with the bird’s name: son ca, which means “The Mountains Sing.”

“Believe me,” her uncle says, “this bird can sing. Whenever it did, all the mountains around me seemed to be singing, too. My comrades used to tell stories about the son ca. They said [its] songs can reach heaven, and the souls of the dead can return in the son ca’s singing.”

This novel does its share of singing amid the horrors of war. There’s an important Vietnam War history lesson embedded here, as well, one that is not often available to American readers. To wit, that the wars (and governments) in Vietnam were not healthy for millions of people who lived there. This book illuminates that enormous tragedy by doing what good fiction does best: giving the reader a look inside the heads of men, women, and children who went through the horrors.


Play the Red QueenAnd now for something completely different: a Raymond Chandler-like noire detective novel, featuring a hard-nosed, hard-drinking (and drugging), skirt-chasing detective. It’s different because Juris Jurjevics’ Play the Red Queen (Soho Crime, 354 pp., $27.95) is set in October and November of 1963 in Saigon, the cop is a U.S. Army investigator, and the cast of characters includes several real-life people, including Henry Cabot Lodge, the U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, and Ngo Dinh Diem, the ill-fated leader of that country.

Jurjevics, who died in 2018, served in the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War, then went on to a distinguished career in book publishing. He co-founded the independent Soho Press in 1986, and served as its head until he retired in 2006 to write books of his own.

This one falls easily into the hard-bitten detective mode as it stars a flawed but dedicated and honorable (well, not mostly) Army CID investigator named Staff Sgt. Ellsworth Miser and his comrade-in-arms, Sgt. Clovis Robeson. The book opens with the pair arriving at the scene of the assassination of a U.S. Army officer on the streets of Saigon. Turns out it’s the work of a lone sharp-shooting, ao dai-wearing VC agent, and the men go to work to solve the crime.

They run into the usual array of red herrings, sexy women, and a raft of cynical military men, war correspondents, and other characters. They nearly lose their lives. They get enmeshed in the plot to overthrow Diem, and in the life of Ambassador Lodge.

The action is heavy, the plot intriguing and cleverly laid out. Not to mention some great, pithy dialogue. Such as Miser describing some sleuthing he and his partner do at the Saigon zoo, during which they try to remain inconspicuous. “With four pounds of warm gun up against the crack of my ass,” he says, “I felt anything but. I just hoped the .45 wouldn’t take my pants to the ground during a confrontation.”

The action picks up near the end as Diem and his brother Nhu meet their violent end. And all is revealed about the murderer. Plus, there’s a surprising (and strange) twist. Telling any more would ruin this romp through the fateful fall of 1963 in South Vietnam and the subsequent start of the American War.





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