You’d have to be living under a rock not to recognize the title THE KITE RUNNER. The book, which debuted in 2003, sold more than seven million copies in the U.S., catapulting its author Khaled Hosseini into literary stardom. His follow-up, A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS, was also a deserved bestseller. Now, exactly a decade later, his third novel --- AND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED --- is primed to capture readers’ imaginations once again. While the story isn’t as cohesive or linear as the previous two, the result is just as magical.
Hosseini is a gifted storyteller, so it’s only natural that he begins AND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED with a story. It’s the fall of 1952 in an impoverished Afghan village, and a widowed father is tucking his two children --- Abdullah, 10, and Pari, 3 --- into bed. As is their ritual, he conjures up an adventurous tale full of jinns and giants to carry them off to sleep. But on this particular night, Saboor’s motives run deeper. The story he spins of a father forced to give up his cherished youngest child to a div (a demon) as a sacrificial offering is an allegory meant to explain what is about to happen to their family. Unbeknownst to Abdullah and Pari, the next morning, they and their father will set off on a journey across the desert to Kabul so that Pari can be adopted by the Wahdatis, a wealthy childless couple who will raise the girl as their own, under one condition: the promise that Pari would never learn of her true origins or see her family again --- “the finger cut to save the hand.”
"In the end, the urge to take flight, to rage, and to reinvent, while simultaneously hanging on and embracing what life has in store, is what drives AND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED and what makes it so poignant to read."
These are the circumstances that lay the groundwork --- and set the tone --- for the rest of the book. With each subsequent chapter told from a different character’s perspective, hopscotching back and forth from year to year and sometimes jumping decades, a more detailed portrait of the fallout from Saboor’s decision --- as well as an increasingly politically, economically and religiously fractured Afghanistan --- begins to emerge. While this approach might seem disjointed at first, the broad strokes and resultant gaps are what provide the story with its glue --- and its far-reaching meaning. As Hosseini writes, “A story is like a moving train: no matter where you hop onboard, you are bound to reach your destination sooner than later.”
In one chapter, we see Pari’s new life with the Wahdatis through the eyes of their chauffeur, Nabi, Saboor’s second wife’s brother and the person responsible for brokering Pari’s trade. In the form of a confession letter written to Markos, the man who would come to own the Wahdatis’ house in the years after Mr. Wahdati’s stroke and Mrs. Wahdati’s departure to Paris, Nabi describes not only his guilt for stealing Pari away from her family to give her a “better” childhood, but also his unexpected deep connection with Mr. Wahdati --- a quiet man with a subtle kindness that was often overlooked, especially by his wife.
In another chapter, Hosseini jumps ahead to 1974, when a grown-up Pari and her mother (Nali) are living in Paris. After years of drinking and burning through life as a single woman full of the freedom she never had in Afghanistan, Nali has made a name for herself as a writer of subversive poetry. Before her sudden death, she is interviewed by the editors of a small quarterly journal (the text of which is included in the book in its entirety), and what she reveals is not a life of joy and inner peace, but of frustration and regret, especially concerning her relationship with her daughter. “I didn’t want her turned, against both her will and nature, into one of those diligent, sad women who are bent on a lifelong course of quiet servitude…women who see their desires doused and their dreams renounced,” she says of her decision to take Pari out of Afghanistan. “Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for my daughter. Not that she understands, or appreciates…. If she knew the life she would have had to endure, if not for me…. I’ve come to believe she’s my punishment.” Remorse is an emotion that runs deep throughout AND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED, and it’s the sacrifices Pari, Nali and every character makes --- and the choices they learn to live with --- that imbue each of their stories with weight and long-lasting significance.
The story of what happens to Pari might be the book’s anchor, but it is, by no means, its sole focus. In fact, the “filler” chapters are arguably richer narratives and give a sense not only of the interconnectedness of individuals but also of a country fighting for its honor and struggling to come into its own. The more Hosseini delves into the lives of his supporting actors --- Parwana (Saboor’s second wife, who harbors a ghastly secret about her marriage), Markos (whose friendship with a young disfigured girl when they were children in Greece teaches him more about humility and devotion than any relationship with a lover might as an adult), Gholam (Parwana’s grandson who, in 2009, befriends the son of the corrupt wartime general who stole Gholam’s family’s land in Afghanistan while he and his family were living as refugees in Pakistan), and Pari (Abdullah’s daughter in California, named after his long-lost sister) --- the more we understand just how lonely, afraid, proud and determined these characters are, as are we.
In the end, the urge to take flight, to rage, and to reinvent, while simultaneously hanging on and embracing what life has in store, is what drives AND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED and what makes it so poignant to read. “People [learn] to live with the most unimaginable things.” But as Hosseini so hauntingly illustrates, what other choice is there?
*** For those who are interested, Khaled Hosseini is now a Goodwill Envoy for the United Nations Refugee Agency. In 2007, he created the Khaled Hosseini Foundation in order to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of his native Afghanistan. According to the book’s press release, the foundation "supports projects which provide shelter to refugee families and economic and educational opportunities and healthcare for women and children...and awards scholarships to women pursuing higher education in Afghanistan." For more information, you can follow on Twitter: @tkhf and on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/khfoundation.
Reviewed by Alexis Burling on May 24, 2013
And the Mountains Echoed