Love & survival

Love & survival

Love & survival

Khaled Hosseini’s multigenerational work of writing explores how characters define themselves through the choices they make in their life.Michiko Kakutani writes.

Khaled Hosseini’s new novel, And the Mountains Echoed, may have the most awkward title in his body of work, but it’s his most assured and emotionally-gripping story yet, more fluent and ambitious than The Kite Runner (2003), more narratively complex than A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007).

Mountains (Hosseini says the title was inspired by William Blake’s poem Nurse’s Song: Innocence, which refers to hills echoing with the sound of children’s voices) spans several generations and moves back and forth between Afghanistan and the West. It grapples with many of the same themes that crisscross his early novels: the relationship between parents and children, and the ways the past can haunt the present. And it shares a similar penchant for mapping terrain midway between the boldly coloured world of fable and the more shadowy, shaded world of realism.

In The Kite Runner and Suns, this could yield some soapy, melodramatic plot twists and characters who were very, very good or very, very bad. Mountains, too, has more than its share of contrivance and sentimentality, but Hosseini’s narrative gifts have deepened over the years, enabling him to anchor firmly the more maudlin aspects of his tale in genuine emotion and fine-grained details.

And so we finish this novel with an intimate understanding of who his characters are and how they have defined themselves over the years through the choices they have made between duty and freedom, familial responsibilities and independence, loyalty to home and exile abroad. All this, played out against the backdrop of Afghanistan’s tumultuous history — from the pre-Soviet era through the years of the Mujahedeen’s fight against the Soviet Union, the rise of the Taliban and the US invasion after the terrorist attacks of September 11.

Whereas The Kite Runner focused on the dynamic between fathers and sons, and Splendid Suns on that between mothers and daughters, this novel tells its story through the prism of sibling relationships — a theme refracted through the lives of several pairs of brothers and sisters.

When we first meet the novel’s two central characters, they are children living in a remote, impoverished Afghan village. Abdullah is 10, and his beloved baby sister, Pari, is three. He has taken care of her since their mother died giving birth to her. The family has no money, and one of their stepmother’s babies has died from the cold.

One day, their father, Saboor, takes them on a long, arduous trip to the big city of Kabul, where their Uncle Nabi works for a wealthy couple, Suleiman and Nila
Wahdati. Pari is left with them to grow up with all the privileges of wealth; her father has allowed the Wahdatis to adopt her.

In the decades to come, Pari will grow up in Paris with Nila, a sometime-poet and full-time narcissist, who leaves her husband behind in Kabul to lead a self-indulgent, bohemian life impossible in Afghanistan. Pari becomes a mathematician, marries a drama teacher and has three children. She suspects that she might have been adopted and resolves to one day travel back to Afghanistan to find out the truth about her past.

All her life, Hosseini writes, Pari has felt “the absence of something, or someone, fundamental to her own existence”: sometimes “it was vague, like a message sent across shadowy byways and vast distances, a weak signal on a radio dial, remote, warbled. Other times it felt so clear, this absence, so intimately close it made her heart lurch.”

As for Abdullah, he ends up in California, running a restaurant called Abe’s Kabob House. He and his wife have named their only child Pari, after his long-lost sister, and the younger Pari will dream of reuniting her father with his missing sibling. After her mother dies, and her father begins to suffer from dementia, Pari decides to postpone her dreams of going to art school to take care of Abdullah.

Creating a kind of echo chamber, Hosseini gives us an assortment of other tales that mirror the stories of Abdullah and the older Pari. There’s the story of their stepmother, Parwana, and her beautiful sister Masooma, who was originally supposed to become Saboor’s betrothed; the story of Parwana’s brother, Nabi, who becomes a caretaker and kind of brother to Suleiman, his ailing employer; the story of the brash, fast-talking Timur Bashiri, whose family used to live down the street from the Wahdatis, and his introspective cousin Idris, who both now live in California; and the story of a Greek doctor named Markos, who has moved to Kabul (in fact, into the Wahdatis’s former house) to operate on children who have been injured in the war, and his childhood soulmate Thalia, who now cares for Markos’s aging mother back home in Greece.

In recounting these tales, Hosseini shamelessly uses contrivance and cheesy melodrama to press every sentimental button he can. He has Parwana causing Masooma to suffer a terrible, disabling accident out of jealousy and resentment; and he has Markos drawing inspiration for his work in helping Afghan children from his sympathy for Thalia, who suffered a terrible facial disfigurement as a girl when she was attacked by a dog.

In the hands of most writers, such narrative manipulations would result in some truly cringe-making moments. That Hosseini manages (for the most part, at least) not only to avoid this, but also to actually succeed in spinning his characters’ lives into a deeply affecting choral work is a testament both to his intimate knowledge of their inner lives, and to his power as an old-fashioned storyteller.