Book Review – And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini – 3 1/2 stars
Cover of ‘And the Mountains Echoed’ book by Khaled Hosseini
And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini follows central themes such as connections in families, difficult relationships between parents and children and siblings, poverty and the effects of war, and the choices we make which lead us to very different lives. It was with great anticipation that I read the next offering from this famous author. I imagine that it must be hard to write while feeling the weight of expectation after such successes have been enjoyed with previous books (The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns). This novel is written in a different style to the other two, in that it follows a series of different family groups at different times starting in Afghanistan in 1952, to Paris to San Francisco and to the Greek island of Tinos. I enjoyed the book and I’m happy that I read it but I do think that Khaled tends to make his characters suffer and through that suffering he invokes a visceral response in the reader. I think it’s that response to suffering that makes readers hail him as a great writer more than his actual writing style which tends to be quite simple. Probably the most exciting thing about his writing is the setting being in Afghanistan because otherwise his stories tend to be overlying dramatic, akin to a soap opera of suffering throughout life. The other aspect of his writing that probably appeals to readers is that the suffering of the main characters is perpetrated by people known to them, rather than random acts of violence by strangers (that must be extremely common in Afghanistan), this allows the reader to experience catharsis when the perpetrator eventually suffers and the main character eventually flourishes. I give it 3 1/2 stars. What follows is a brief description of the main stories in the book and some observations around the central themes:
- The book starts with 3 year old Pari and 10 year old Abdullah who share a uniquely lovely bond, living in poverty with their itinerant labourer father (Saboor), stepmother (Parwana) and step-brother (Iqbal). Winter is approaching their tiny village and one baby step-brother died in the last winter because the family couldn’t afford to heat their hut or buy enough blankets to keep warm. To raise money, Pari is sold to the wealthy Wahdati couple in Kabul and Abdullah is heartbroken. When I observe my own two children interacting with one another, sometimes in harmony but with jealousy never far away, I find it hard to believe the beautiful love between Pari and Abdullah, especially considering that he was 7 years older than her and their mother died in childbirth. It’s surprising that he doesn’t get annoyed by her but instead Abdullah plays the role of mother to his baby sister, rising in the night to change her and rock her back to sleep. When I was 10 my younger brother was born and I remember spending most of my time with him, sometimes changing nappies, carrying him, playing patiently with him. It wasn’t until he was 4 and I was 14 that I found that I could no longer play with him without feeling eventual irritation, perhaps because of the teenage hormones or perhaps because 4 year olds are inherently challenging creatures!;
- Abdullah and Pari’s father, Saboor, would have married his childhood sweetheart Massooma, except that she fell/was slightly pushed by her jealous sister, Parwana who was also in love with Saboor, from the upper branches of a tree in the village. Masooma’s spine was broken and she was disabled by the accident. Parwana patiently cared for her sister, never telling her that she felt responsible for the fall from the tree. Saboor married someone else and after she died giving birth to Pari, Saboor needed a new wife to care for his children. Masooma asked Parwana to walk her to Kabul but on the long and arduous journey she insisted that Parwana abandon her in the desert so that she could die and Parwana would be free to marry Saboor. Parwana obliges her sister’s wishes and is relieved to be free of the burden of caring for Masooma. Parwana then marries Saboor and it is partly her idea to sell Pari to the wealthy Wahdati couple in Kabul through Parwana’s brother Nabi who is the chauffeur/cook for the Wahdati’s. We do not get to know Parwana after the unsettling chapter on her relationship with her sister and the choice that she made to free herself and essentially euthanize/murder Masooma. I wonder what kind of relationship Parwana and Saboor had considering the pain and difficulties both had faced. Saboor tells Abdullah that he mustn’t cry when they return to the village after selling Pari and Parwana tells Abdullah that
‘It had to be her. I am sorry, Abdullah. She had to be the one’
- It is difficult for the reader to empathise with Parwana and understand how she could rid herself of her sister and daughter-in-law in a two year period. Our only insight into the pain experienced by the quiet Saboor is that upon returning to the village (after selling his daughter Pari) he chopped down the ancient tree from which his childhood sweetheart Masooma had fallen;
- Next we read a long letter from an elderly Nabi to a middle aged Greek doctor named Markos. The letter chronicles Nabi’s long life with his employer Mr Wahdati. Mr Wahdati rarely speaks, he doesn’t work and lives off his inheritance. He is
‘… a man with no profession, no apparent passion, and apparently no impulse to leave behind something of himself in this world. … he lived a life lacking in purpose or direction. A life lived from the backseat, observed as it blurred by. An indifferent life.’
- We are not given any information to really endear Mr Wahdati to us. He marries a young woman named Nila who had just had a hysterectomy to save her life. Nila is a poet who writes poems about sex that are shocking to Afghan society. She and Mr Wahdati barely connect with one another and Nila turns to Nabi for daily friendship and begins affairs with other middle class friends. Nabi is desperately in love with Nila and knows she is deeply unhappy and longs for children. It is his idea to ask his sister Parwana and brother-in-law Saboor to sell Pari to Nila. Pari soon settles into a privileged life with her adopted parents and brings life to the household and their relationship. When Mr Wahdati has a stroke Nila cannot cope and flees with Pari to Paris, leaving Nabi to care for his employer. What follows is a beautiful life of platonic companionship and caring, akin to a marriage between Nabi and Mr Wahdati but with clear servant:master roles (akin to Robinson Crusoe and Friday). It eventually becomes clear that Mr Wahdati is in love with Nabi and he tells him to leave while he’s still young enough to have a family but Nabi realises that he wouldn’t have a better connection with anyone else so he stays and cares for Mr Wahdati until he dies decades later. In a touching gesture of love Mr Wahdati leaves his entire estate to Nabi in his will;
- The cousins Idris and Timur grew up across the street from the Wahdati’s and fled with their families to the USA after war made life in Kabul untenable. Idris and Timur return to Kabul in 2003 to make a claim of ownership on their house. They meet the doctor Markos, Nabi (his landlord) and the nurse Amra who takes them on a tour of the hospital. There they meet Roshi, the victim of a shocking attack by her uncle with an axe that killed her entire family and left her severely injured. Idris feels jealous of his cousin Timur and is scornful of his macho and loud approach to life (sleeping with nurses in Kabul even though he is married, conspicuously giving to beggars) and feels that he has always lived in Timur’s gregarious and generous shadow. Idris is suspicious of Timur’s motives for giving and believes that he gives really to make a good impression on others. Idris makes a connection with Roshi and promises to fly her to USA for treatment in his hospital (he’s a medical doctor too). Upon return home he is initially assaulted by culture shock and revulsion over the decadent choices he and his family make when it comes to spending money. However within the first week his resolve to help Roshi is eroded and he reneges on his promises. Interestingly it is Timur who pays for Roshi’s treatment which allows her to live a normal life after that. I think of this phenomenon as tourist guilt – whereby tourists experience an intense connection in developing countries and overwhelming compassion and guilt experienced. This makes the tourist want to help and come up with an idea for a way to help. Return home is hard due to culture shock and for some everyday life becomes normal and giving suddenly becomes impossible, while for others the experience is life-changing and great charities are set-up as a result, e.g. John Wood started Room to Read after trekking in Nepal. For me after this point the novel becomes less interesting and mostly pursues Pari and Abdullah towards an eventual reunion;
- Nila continued to be unhappy in Paris and as a result Pari had a lonely and difficult childhood and a difficult relationship with her mother. Eventually Nila committed suicide and Pari was lucky to find a man to love and cherish her. I don’t really have anything to say about this section where we seem really to be moving through time towards a deliberate plot point;
- The story of Adel and Gholam follows and is deeply disturbing. Adel is the son of a a war criminal and drug lord. He lives in a carefully guarded mansion built on the site of the village where Pari and Abdullah were born. Gholam is the son of Iqbal (Pari and Abdullah’s half-brother). Iqbal returns to the village to reclaim his ancestral home only to find the monstrous mansion and orchard occupying his land. He tries repeatedly to confront Adel’s father but is turned away by his henchmen. There is an interesting coming-of-age sequence of events and enlightenment for Adel, brought about by interacting with worldly Gholam who has grown up in a refugee camp in Pakistan. I like the gutsy character of Gholam and I’m sad that his father was beaten to death by Adel’s father, thus dooming Gholam to a life of drudgery and poverty. When Adel realises what his father has done and what a monster he really is there is a disconcerting line that gutted me
‘People learned to live with the most unimaginable things. As would he.’
- Next we follow the Greek doctor Markos to his home island of Tinos where his elderly mother is dying of chronic illness and is cared for by Markos’s childhood friend and adopted sister Thalia. We learn of the dog attack that severely damaged Thalia’s face, ripping part of her cheek and lips off forever and this is why her mother abandoned her to the care of Markos’s mother. This section seems unnecessary to the novel and I’m unsure of why Hosseini complicated the plot with this side story. The interaction between Markos and his mother is strained and in this homecoming they finally connect.
‘I am fifty-five years old. I have waited all my life … (for my mother to accept and praise me)… Part of me thinks it is better to go on as we have, to act as though we don’t know how ill suited we have been for each other… Perhaps better … this fragile, trembling glimpse of how it could have been between us’.
- For me the end of the book is a denouement when Pari finally finds Abdullah who by then has dementia and is unable to recognise her, so his daughter (also named Pari) connects with his sister instead.
If you have read until this point I am amazed! I didn’t mean to be so verbose but I wanted to cover all of the main points. What did you think of this book?