AND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED
Author: Khaled Hosseini
Bloomsbury Publishing RRP $24.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
So, then. You want a story and I will tell you one …
In my mind, there is no doubt that Khaled Hosseini is a gifted storyteller. I loved The Kite Runner, which I found to be a refreshingly different, beautifully told tale that haunted me for some time after I’d read it. I enjoyed A Thousand Splendid Suns almost as much and found myself caught up in his poetic words. You can guess, then, that I was very much looking forward to reading his third novel, the much-hyped And the Mountains Echoed. Like the first two books, this one is emotive, at times poetic and touching, and gives insight into a culture I know little of apart from books and media. However, it didn’t quite measure up to the promise of his earlier works, with a different and busy narrative style not quite bringing the story together in a convincing way.
The story begins in a small Afghan village in 1952, where Abdullah and his sister Pari live in poverty with their father and stepmother. Abdullah knows instinctively that his stepmother will never love them as much as she would her own blood, though she tries, and he compensates by devoting himself to Pari, becoming as a parent to her. When his father, Saboor, sells Pari to a wealthy merchant in Kabul, Abdullah is devastated. His father has told him that sometimes a finger must be cut to save the hand, but it is years before Abdullah understands what that means. All he can do is hold on to the hope that someday, somehow, he will find his sister again.
This initial event sets the scene for a story spanning several decades and continents – actually, it’s a not just one story but a number of interconnected stories springing from the same seed. When Pari is sold, she lives with her step-uncle’s employer. The house they live in later becomes a hospital of sorts and a visitor to the hospital is later found to be loosely linked to Abdullah, and so on. Just as the narrative scope is wider, the geographical scope of this novel is also much broader than Hosseini’s previous novels, moving beyond the borders of Afghanistan into Paris, Greece and the United States, moving where the characters’ paths/stories take them. The connections vary in strength; some connections seem contrived (and could have been left out), others make sense, especially in the first half of the book which I found more touching overall. That said, while some of the character links and episodes are weak, the thematic links of family, loyalty, disillusionment, betrayal, abandonment and choice remain strong. One of the most poignant moments was when Idris deals with the discomfort and guilt of failing to help a young girl as he had promised to do (haven’t we all had good intentions?); Parwana’s story also moved me to tears.
Although the novel has its weak points, it also has some excellent qualities. The legend that opens the novel was beautifully rendered and drew me in instantly. There are some delightful passages where words flow smoothly and eloquently. Some of the characters (not all) learn surprising and difficult lessons that are as much thought-provoking for the reader as for the character, and there are a number of emotionally-charged scenes that need pause for reflection (and a tissue or two). I could identify with the powerful need for belonging expressed by many of the characters, no matter their situation, and I was fascinated by the nature v nurture discussion Pari’s situation prompted (would she have been different if she had stayed with her family?) Also fascinating was the change that money and privilege wrought in some of the characters – the lure of capitalism often swayed an obligation to one’s roots. How true is that in real life? Add money to someone’s life and how do they change?
Overall, it’s a good read and I’d recommend it. Is it great, as in masterful? It started well, with such promise, but for me didn’t quite reach the bar set by the earlier books. Blue Eyes, who hasn’t read Hosseini’s earlier works, had a similar experience to me, despite having nothing to compare with. He was drawn in quickly and enjoyed aspects, but found the book started to wander and lost him a bit. Read it … and make your own mind up.
Available from good bookstores and Bloomsbury. This copy was courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing.
Bookish treat: Right now, a spiced tea would go down well.