Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 21, 2020

Author event: Nguyen Phan Que Mai in conversation with Natalie Jenner

I heard about The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai a while ago, and ordered a copy straight away because it is so rare to find fiction set in Vietnam.

This is the blurb:

Set against the backdrop of the Việt Nam War, The Mountains Sing is the enveloping, multi-generational tale of the Trần family, perfect for fans of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko or Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing.

Hà Nội, 1972. Hương and her grandmother, Trần Diệu Lan, cling to one another in their improvised shelter as American bombs fall around them. Her father and mother have already left to fight in a war that is tearing not just her country but her family apart. For Trần Diệu Lan, forced to flee the family farm with her six children decades earlier as the Communist government rose to power in the North, this experience is horribly familiar. Seen through the eyes of these two unforgettable women, The Mountains Sing captures their defiance and determination, hope and unexpected joy.

Vivid, gripping, and steeped in the language and traditions of Việt Nam, celebrated Vietnamese poet Nguyễn’s richly lyrical debut weaves between the lives of grandmother and granddaughter to paint a unique picture of the country’s turbulent twentieth-century history. This is the story of a people pushed to breaking point, and a family who refuse to give in.

Natalie Jenner’s The Jane Austen Society, OTOH, is set on the other side of the planet from where she lives in Canada, in a village called Chawton in the UK.

This is the blurb:

‘Hope can sometimes be just enough.’

It’s only a few months since the war ended but the little village of Chawton is about to be hit by another devastating blow. The heart of the community, the Chawton estate, and site of Jane Austen’s cherished former home, is in danger of being sold to the highest bidder.

Eight villagers are brought together by their love for the famous author’s novels, to create The Jane Austen Society. As new friendships form and the pain of the past begins to heal, surely they can find a way to preserve Austen’s legacy before it is too late?

And there may even be a few unexpected surprises along the way…

A heartbreaking and uplifting novel of hope, loss and love. Perfect for fans of Miss Austen by Gill Hornby and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer.

It was lovely to hear how these two authors connected with each other because of the difficulties of launching a book during the pandemic.  And they love each other’s books!

Both the authors have had to deal with personal trauma that would devastate almost anybody, so their books enabled them to bond with each other, and they hope that their books will be cheering in some small way for others who might need some literary therapy.  The intimacy of a book connects us in a way that nothing else can.

It was good to hear that Canada has dealt quite well with the pandemic, though they are facing a second wave at the moment.  But Indonesia is not coping well, and that is where Que Mai is at the moment, and separated from her children in Europe and her parents in Vietnam.  She’s been reading a lot, and being able to connect through events like Zoom has helped her to cope.  Christine talked about how here in Melbourne we are all homesick for our bookshops, buying online is just not the same.  But of course there is a great deal more to it than that…

So, to themes in the book: Jenner is interested in multiple social dynamics, showing how a group of people thrown together interact.  She writes to escape her own life, to feel control that she doesn’t have in her own life. She’s interested in how people can elevate each other, and help others rise to the occasion.

Que Mai wanted to honour the suffering of the older generation in Vietnam in the early days of the Communist revolution.  Vietnamese people have a tradition of honouring their elders, and listening to them, but censorship has meant that people are not allowed to talk about the impact of land reforms, for example.  Also, because she has no grandmothers, she wanted to create one for herself in the book. Her family doesn’t even have a picture of her grandmother, who died in the Great Hunger where two million people died. She spoke movingly about meeting Vietnamese people in Australia, and how there are still so many stories to be told.

Both authors talked about stepping out of your own life when you travel or live abroad, and how (especially in Vietnam) there is often only one point-of-view that’s presented in the place where you live.  Que Mai referenced Catfish and Mandala by Vietnamese-American Andrew X. Pham which was about returning to his origins and his thoughts about a re-education camp, which gave her a different perspective on the people of South Vietnam.

During this conversation about travel, I bet I wasn’t the only listener to breathe a prolonged sigh…

This was a great session, and it was good to hear that Que Mai is writing another novel, this time about the children of American servicemen searching for their parents.

Hosting the conversation was the indefatigable Christine Gordon, program manager at Readings, who (like me) has had to squeeze in dinner between this event and the previous one with Josephine Rowe and Anna MacDonald.  But (unlike me) Christine has children to manage as well, so huge thanks to her for bringing us this event!

Links are to Readings bookstore.


  1. What an interesting session, with two authors of what sound like very different works. And what happened to Vietnam is heartbreaking – I’m not sure I’m strong enough to read about it right now…


    • Yes, I must admit that beforehand I was puzzled by what the connection might be between two such different books. But it turned out that a friendship formed when Que Mai reached out to Natalie because launching a book in a pandemic is such a fraught experience for authors, and they have been friends ever since.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this write up. I do have a copy of The Mountains Sing and I’ve read and enjoyed The Jane Austen Society.


    • I’m going to try not to leave it too long before reading it, but the backlog has suddenly reached rather alarming proportions!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Sounds like a lovely discussion Lisa. Both books sound interesting but I’m most interested in Que Mai’s, for the same reason as you. I particularly like that it’s about older Vietnamese people and what’s happened to them.

    BTW One of Dad’s lovely carers is Indonesian. She’s about 50 and her family, including her mother is over there. She usually sees her every year but is concerned about when she’ll see her again. I feel for people in that situation.


    • A very worrying situation for her, as it is for all of us who have family living in places where C-19 is out of control. I never imagined that the UK would be in that category…


  4. You’ve sold me on The Mountains Sing. My knowledge of this country’s past is woefully inadequate.


    • Yes, I’m looking forward to it:)


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