Reviewed by Karen Heenan-Davies
Expectations ran high in the run-up to the publication of Khaled Hosseini’s latest novel And the Mountains Echoed. Could he emulate the success of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, both of which topped the book charts for many weeks and went on to sell more than 38 million copies worldwide?
The key features of those earlier successes are certainly evident in And the Mountains Echoed: siblings separated by hardship and tragedy, nostalgia for the Afghanistan of former years and the clash of western and eastern civilisations, all rendered within an emotionally charged atmosphere. There is a thematic similarity too, with an exploration of the dynamics of familial relationships. Having focused on fathers and sons in The Kite Runner and on mothers and daughters in A Thousand Splendid Suns, for his third novel Hosseini turns his attention to sibling relationships. But it would be a mistake to approach And the Mountains Echoed as if it were simply a formulaic novel or, as one reviewer described it, “an airport novel”. Doing so would be to diminish Hosseni’s achievement as a storyteller par excellence.
Storytelling is in fact how Hosseini opens his novel. As they cross the Afghan desert en route for Kabul, a father relates a folk tale to his small daughter and her older brother. It’s a fable about the sacrifices made by parents in the furtherance of a greater reward. Shortly after Saboor ends his story, it becomes clear that he is about to make his own sacrifice. Out of the despair of poverty, Saboor has agreed to hand over his daughter, Pari, to a wealthy but childless couple in Kabul. He believes she will enjoy a far better future than he can provide in their remote village. But his action means the three-year-old is separated from her adoring brother, Abdullah. In the following decades we hear how Pari blossoms, first in Kabul and then later in Paris, achieving academic success and personal happiness. Unaware of either her previous life or the existence of her brother, she nevertheless feels there is something missing:
…that for as long as she could remember there was in her life 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 if felt so clear, this absence, so intimately close it made her heart lurch.
Abdullah’s life takes a different course. He settles in California, feeding wealthy Afghan expats as the owner of Abe’s Kaboob House restaurant. But he never forgets his beloved sister, naming his first born daughter Pari in her honour.
Will brother and sister be re-united? That is the question that will keep readers turning the pages. Hosseini doesn’t gratify their desire for an answer until almost the end of the novel, but fills the gap with assorted stories of other people’s lives. These seem unconnected initially, but gradually it becomes apparent that these are echoes of Abdullah’s and Pari’s own experience and the way a single act can reverberate across time and place.
This novel has a less linear plot than its predecessors, spanning several generations and ranging geographically between Afghanistan, North America, France and Greece. But always there is a sense that even in exile, these characters cannot be separated from their family nor from their homeland of Afghanistan. As Pari says:
…it is important to know your roots. To know where you started as a person. If not, your own life seems unreal to you. Like you missed the beginning of a story and now you are in the middle of it trying to understand.
In the hands of another writer, this is a novel that could easily descend into mawkishness and melodrama. It’s a testament to Hosseini’s delicate touch on the sentimentality throttle that instead he gives us a work of intimacy and poignancy.
Karen Heenan-Davies blogs at Booker Talk www.bookertalk.com. When she’s not reading or talking about reading she’s on a one woman campaign to eradicate the word ‘leverage’.
Khaled Hosseini, And the Mountains Echoed (London, Bloomsbury, 2014). 978-1-4088-4245-4, 463pp., paperback.