Originally published on The Nerd Daily.
There is good reason that The Mountains Sing [Algonquin Books, March 17, 2020], the first novel in English by award-winning poet Nguyen Phan Que Mai, has been ranked among “the most exciting writers to emerge in post-war Vietnam”--it is, in a word, breathtaking.
The Mountains Sing is an epic, multi-generational narrative that traces the arc of Vietnam’s turbulent and painful twentieth century history as Que Mai gracefully weaves together the timeline of four generations of the Tran family—beginning during the Communist Land Reform of the 1950s and extending through the aftermath of the American bombing of Ha Noi in the early 1970s. Steeped in the storytelling traditions of Vietnam, The Mountains Sing is decadent and heart wrenching, equal parts lush and vibrant in its unfamiliar setting, and just as persistently unrelenting in its depiction of decades worth of war and conflict.
This story, although captivating and stunningly crafted, is nonetheless brutal, making its narration ring true in the heart of the reader--“The more I read, the more I became afraid of wars. Wars have the power to turn graceful and cultured people into monsters.”
Written as Que Mai’s response to single-sided, Western-written depictions of Vietnam as a place of war, simplicity, and cruelty, The Mountains Sing presents a story of history, of resiliency, and of hope as told through the indelible voices of the Tran family, alternating between the family’s matriarch, Tran Dieu Lan, and extending to her granddaughter, Huong. It is every bit a tale as much of painful desperation and the horrors of famine, war, and class struggle, as it is a moving lesson in hope, renewal, and the bond of family. “…I realized that war was monstrous. If it didn’t kill those it touched, it took away a piece of their souls, so they could never be whole again.”
Que Mai’s The Mountains Sing is a heartfelt inquiry into Vietnam’s past, a moving tribute to those who braved, endured, and perished during decades of upheaval and suffering, and, in the end, a novel that will simultaneously break your heart and mend it, a testament to both Que Mai’s storytelling and the strength of a people who never gave up, no matter how much was levied against them.
The Mountains Sing is available from Amazon, Book Depository, and other good book retailers as of March 17th 2020.
*On a personal note from this reviewer, The Mountains Sing may not have been a title the likes of which normally make its way into my library, but it has nonetheless found a place as one of the most moving, and fundamentally eye-opening, novels I feel I will read in my lifetime.
Originally published on The Nerd Daily.
Dream-like and lyrical, Creatures by debut author Crissy Van Meter is a story that ebbs and flows like the tide--delicate, inevitable, and mesmerising.
On the eve of Evie’s wedding, a storm has washed a dead whale into the harbour of Winter Island, a fictional and feral island off the Southern Californian coast. While her fiancé may be lost at sea, the storm has brought home Evie’s long-wandering mother. This pivotal moment serves as the starting point for a story that weaves through past, present, and future, pulling the reader along effortlessly as we traverse Evie’s lifeline. We learn that she was raised a child of the island, a creature perhaps of circumstance rather than upbringing while her father peddled drugs to tourists on the island, and we watch as Evie struggles at every turn to reconcile the lush wildness of the island that is her home—and in all its glorious complexities—the lush wildness that is herself. In the end, the journey of the tale is as wholly beautiful and provocative as any single moment, making Van Meter’s debut a powerful exploration of the complexities of human emotion and the lengths a heart will go to in order to love.
Written to mimic the tidal charts she studies, Evie’s story is told through alternating timelines that some readers may find confusing, but is not without merit; this disorientation is a requisite component of the story and skilfully and intentionally written. Reading Creatures is sort of like floating underwater, where we lose sense of what is now and real and find ourselves immersed in a world that is boundless and fluid, but no less deadly. This intersection of fact and fiction is rather like life itself, where boundaries blur and we must craft our own version of the truth from cobbled together information and experience.
A debut that is anything but ordinary, Creatures is subtle yet intentional in its symbolic connection to elements of the natural world. Still, it’s just as deliberately a story of the uniquely human condition. The cyclical nature of Evie’s journey—from child to adult, and in various degrees of wholeness between—is profound. At times heart wrenching and still darkly funny, there is poignancy even in Evie’s exposure to childhood traumas, from a neglectful mother to a toxic if well-meaning father, a best friend that is equal loyal and betraying. Like Evie, we are given the opportunity to explore concepts of grief and forgiveness, as much as for the self as for those who have wronged us.
And that’s what this reader thinks sets Creatures apart: it’s a reminder that, like Evie, we are all lush and wild creatures, beholden as much to the world around us and all its lovely juxtapositions as we are doomed to the same inevitability as the whale that washed up in the harbour of Winter Island on the eve of her wedding.
We have all known a woman like Evie’s mother. We have all known a man like Evie’s father. We’ve all had a friend like Rook. We’ve all loved someone like Liam. They are all water, moving in and out of our lives, sometimes coming, sometimes going, but always leaving their mark on our hearts.
In the end, though we may not yet realise it, we’ve all been Evie and her whale. We have all been ravaged by the water. We tumble, we float, we drown, and we resurface.
Lindy Miller Ryan is an author, editor, and spooky things enthusiast who occasionally makes crafty things and bakes.