Book Review: When I Sing, Mountains Dance

when i sing

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“I used to tell them they should come swim in the river, and there’s no war in the mountains, that wars end but the mountains never do, that the mountains are older than war, and wiser than war, and once you’re dead they can’t kill you again”

When I Sing, Mountains Dance tells the story of a mountain in the Pyrenees close to the border with France. It is told from a variety of points of view, many of these unexpected. The people who inhabit the area have mostly done so for generations. They will one day die, as do all living entities. Life cycles may end naturally or be abruptly curtailed, but death is, at some point, inevitable. This is not portrayed as tragic, although individuals may be grieved for a time by those who cared for them. The mountain, with its forests, rivers and multiple life forms, has seen many come and go throughout its existence.

“Most men are liars. The men who invent stories and those who tell them. The ones who cut us out, who collect us and force us inside words, so we are the story they want to tell, with the moral they want to explain. Cut out and shrunk down to fit into their tiny heads. Tiny and dumb, but not any less evil.”

The opening chapter is narrated by a storm that blows in one evening. It finds a young man, Domènec, outside picking mushrooms. A lightning bolt strikes and kills him, an event witnessed by four dead women who stayed on in the region after they were murdered – their story is told next. Domènec leaves behind a wife, an elderly father, and two young children. These siblings, Mia and Hilari, are central to the tale.

“Some men’s tongues get stuck and just shrivel in their mouths, and they don’t know how to open up and say nice things to their children, or nice things to their grandchildren, and that’s how family stories get lost”

Their mother grew up in the city and found mountain life more challenging than she expected. She takes out the resentment she feels, particularly after her husband’s death, on her children. Nevertheless, they are able to run free, seeking out water sprites and other creatures from stories they are familiar with. They befriend a giant’s son, who brings a burgeoning happiness and then personal tragedy.

Key events are narrated through the eyes of witnesses, not just people. This adds power and depth. It is hard to feel sympathy when a man dies while trying to kill an innocent roe deer. The deer’s descriptions of men and their habits provide revealing perspectives – known but perhaps not often enough considered.

There are stories within stories, including local legends and myths. Men tell of the mountains being formed over the bodies of lovers. Of course, the mountain knows it was pushed up due to plate tectonics. People will believe what suits them; dismissing children’s words while holding close what has been inculcated.

Much of the writing is elemental but also playful. Sexual activity between a couple, narrated by a pet dog, was amusingly clever. A hiker from the city, enthusing about the bucolic beauty of the region, grows annoyed when he cannot purchase sustenance due to businesses closing for a funeral. He believes it is he who has been badly treated.

The ghosts in the forest appear happier than the living, content to exist among the creatures that surround them and enjoy all the mountain offers. Those still alive remain blinkered by their everyday concerns.

“The movement will have begun again. The disaster. The next beginning. The nth end. And you will all die. Because nothing lasts long. And no one remembers the names of your children.”

Within these tales are reminders that not everyone sees or senses the same things. Some know when snow is coming. Some know when the dead are near. It is posited that the dead no longer care for the living. They are now beyond their petty worries.

Although centring on a small, rural community across half a century – those whose lives are subtly changed by Mia and Hilari – this is a story of a place and all that exists there, coloured by history. The sweeping narrative makes clear how fleeting any life is. Death is the shedding of another leaf, a season turning.

Despite death being a recurring theme – a fact of life, and man no more important than any other creature – this is a story that proves remarkably uplifting. The writing is both lyrical and pithy with many amusing observations. It is evocative and skilfully rendered, lightly told but offering rare insight.

Any Cop?: An exceptional story that is impressively atmospheric but never heavy. Beautifully put together, it will affect and linger.

Jackie Law

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