A richly imagined story of severed bonds amid conflict.

THE MOUNTAINS SING

A sweeping tale of one family’s shifting fortunes in Vietnam across half a century.

The first novel in English by the Vietnam-born Nguyễn (The Secret of Hoa Sen: Poems, 2014) centers on the Trần family, living in North Vietnam during three conflict-struck generations. Her lens turns to two characters in particular: Diệu Lan, who grew up amid Japanese and French occupations, and her granddaughter Hương, who uses Diệu Lan’s stories to try to piece together what happened during the war. It is a largely grim portrait. Diệu Lan watched as her father was beheaded by Japanese soldiers and saw the whole region suffer through a long famine; the six children who weren’t killed during the war suffered PTSD or had their own children born dead, deformed from their parents' exposure to Agent Orange. The novel’s major set piece and most effecting sequence follows Diệu Lan as she is stripped of her livelihood in the midst of Communist North Vietnam’s “Land Reform” policy that demonized traders like herself; she’s forced to abandon her children, one by one, to protect them from retribution. Her daughter (and Hương’s mother) Ngọc, a doctor, survives the war, but comes home badly traumatized, and nobody knows where Hương’s father is; the girl’s sole tangible connection to him is a carved bird whose name gives the novel its title. For all the loss Nguyễn depicts, though, her story is invitingly and gracefully told. She is particularly adept at weaving in folktales and aphorisms to create a vivid sense of place. Hương’s love for her homeland is complicated by her family’s struggle and her refusal to see Americans as pure evil (“By reading their books, I saw the other side of them”), punctuated by a final twist that challenges her notions of love and family. The novel lapses into sentiment at times, but it mainly honors the complexity of its setting.

A richly imagined story of severed bonds amid conflict.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-61620-818-9

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Reader Votes

  • Readers Vote
  • 18

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2015

  • Kirkus Prize
  • Kirkus Prize
    winner

  • National Book Award Finalist

A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

Did you like this book?

Less bleak than the subject matter might warrant—Hannah’s default outlook is sunny—but still, a wrenching depiction of war’s...

HOME FRONT

 The traumatic homecoming of a wounded warrior.

The daughter of alcoholics who left her orphaned at 17, Jolene “Jo” Zarkades found her first stable family in the military: She’s served over two decades, first in the army, later with the National Guard. A helicopter pilot stationed near Seattle, Jo copes as competently at home, raising two daughters, Betsy and Lulu, while trying to dismiss her husband Michael’s increasing emotional distance. Jo’s mettle is sorely tested when Michael informs her flatly that he no longer loves her. Four-year-old Lulu clamors for attention while preteen Betsy, mean-girl-in-training, dismisses as dweeby her former best friend, Seth, son of Jo’s confidante and fellow pilot, Tami. Amid these challenges comes the ultimate one: Jo and Tami are deployed to Iraq. Michael, with the help of his mother, has to take over the household duties, and he rapidly learns that parenting is much harder than his wife made it look. As Michael prepares to defend a PTSD-afflicted veteran charged with Murder I for killing his wife during a dissociative blackout, he begins to understand what Jolene is facing and to revisit his true feelings for her. When her helicopter is shot down under insurgent fire, Jo rescues Tami from the wreck, but a young crewman is killed. Tami remains in a coma and Jo, whose leg has been amputated, returns home to a difficult rehabilitation on several fronts. Her nightmares in which she relives the crash and other horrors she witnessed, and her pain, have turned Jo into a person her daughters now fear (which in the case of bratty Betsy may not be such a bad thing). Jo can't forgive Michael for his rash words. Worse, she is beginning to remind Michael more and more of his homicide client. Characterization can be cursory: Michael’s earlier callousness, left largely unexplained, undercuts the pathos of his later change of heart. 

Less bleak than the subject matter might warrant—Hannah’s default outlook is sunny—but still, a wrenching depiction of war’s aftermath.

Pub Date: Jan. 31, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-312-57720-9

Page Count: 400

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Dec. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2012

Did you like this book?

more