“And the Mountains Echoed” by Khaled Hosseini (Riverhead Books, 416 pages, $28.95)
“You want a story and I will tell you one,” begins “And the Mountains Echoed.” We all want a story; it’s why we read novels. Khaled Hosseini has already shown, in his previous works “The Kite Runner” and “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” that he’ll give us a good story
With this new novel, though, he gives us a basket of stories intertwining through time, geography and families. The narrative structure of this book is looser than that of his previous books, but the stories within are no less compelling.
“And the Mountains Echoed” starts with the story of a family in Afghanistan in the early 1950s. Ten-year-old Abdullah and his 3-year-old sister, Pari, live in a hardscrabble village with their father, stepmother and new baby brother. The pair are close, united by the loss of their mother and the sense of protectiveness that Abdullah feels for Pari. But one day, Pari is adopted – bought – by a wealthy, childless Kabul couple, and the siblings are wrenched apart.
Their story is but the starting point: Readers get the stories of the Kabul couple, the Wahdatis, both together and, later, apart; the story of their driver, Nabi, who is also Abdullah’s and Pari’s uncle; the story of the aid workers who live in the Wahdatis’ once-opulent Kabul house decades later; and the story of two neighbor boys after they’ve emigrated to the United States. We see Pari as an adult living in Paris, where her adoptive mother, a half-French, half-Afghan poet, moved them while Pari was still a child. We revisit Abdullah, who is running a kebob restaurant in California, and meet his daughter, named for the sister he lost but never forgot. We get the story of a nomadic Greek plastic surgeon who ended up as one of the aid workers in Kabul. We see what happened to Abdullah’s and Pari’s half-brother, who remained in war-torn Afghanistan.
And we wonder whether across all the years and miles, far-flung but fondly missed families and friends can ever reconnect, whether old wrongs can be forgiven and new ones righted, whether lives begun anew can succeed.
The stories largely hang together well, flowing one into the next smoothly, the connections made clear. The one that seems a bit out of place is probably the one closest to the author’s own life: the story of the Wahdatis’ neighbors, two Afghan-born brothers grown up and now American. They travel back to Afghanistan, and the one who is a physician – Hosseini is also a doctor – is wracked with guilt for promising but not being able to help a young girl severely injured in an attack. This particular story was the most loosely connected to the others and seemed placed to remind us of how bad things can be in Afghanistan – good intentions, but it didn’t fit in well with the rest of the book.
Of course, any novel about Afghanistan can’t ignore the state of war that has plagued the country for decades. “And the Mountains Echoed” doesn’t dwell on military conflicts but rather notes how combat and its side effects influence the lives of everyday people. The character Nabi presents it well: “I can sum it up in one word: war. Or, rather, wars. Not one, not two, but many wars, both big and small, just and unjust, wars with shifting casts of supposed heroes and villains, each new hero making one increasingly nostalgic for the old villain. The names changed, as did the faces, and I spit on them equally for all the petty feuds, the snipers, the land mines, bombing raids, the rockets, the looting and raping and killing. Ah, enough!”
But far more than war, the book focuses on the bonds of family, the ties of home. Sometimes, these are liberating – if, like Markos, the Greek surgeon, you can travel the world but know you always have a place to come home to. Other times they can feel stifling – Pari, the daughter of Abdullah who can never quite escape the shadow of the missing aunt whose name she bears, knows that the powerful love of her father “was the kind of love that, sooner or later, cornered you into a choice: either you tore free, or you stayed and withstood its rigor even as it squeezed you into something smaller than yourself.”
The stories of “And the Mountains Echoed” don’t give us several views of a whole picture – they aren’t intended to – but rather explore the connections people have to places and to each other and how early experiences shape a life for years to come. And they do this very well: Hosseini is a talented storyteller, wrapping readers in emotion, using detail to create full images of people and locations and creating complex, human characters who inhabit complex, human lives.