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The opening epigraph of Khaled Hosseini’s novel And the Mountains Echoed reads:
“Out beyond ideas
of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.”
-Jelaluddin Rumi, 13th century
Smack dab in the middle of that field is where Hosseini places his novel And the Mountains Echoed. A master storyteller, he reaches deep into the souls of his characters and lays them out raw, bare, and exposed for his readers. In his most complex novel yet, one that spans six decades, Hosseini takes us from Afghanistan to France and to Greece and the United States. He pieces together a family history of pain, separation, loss, and hope. This family, once sacrificed and fully fractured, made their way through war, poverty, displacement, and survival.
The opening, as any good writing should, sets the tone and the premise, and in this case it is a story within the story. Saboor, a poor laborer in a remote village, recounts to his children a story in which a father makes a hard and terrible decision. The decision is to give his favorite child to a div, a monster, in order to save his family and the village.
Although it sounds terrible at the outset, in the end there remains a lingering thought that perhaps it’s not as bad as it may seem. It is, nonetheless, a painful story for Saboor to tell, especially as it mirrors his own actions.
In the fall of 1952, Saboor takes his two young children to Kabul with the intention of leaving his three-year old daughter, Pari, with the wealthy couple for whom his brother-in-law Nabi works as a cook and chauffeur. This one action will affect Saboor’s family and acquaintances for generations, but that isn’t his concern of the moment. Pari’s brother, 10-year old Abdullah, is beside himself when he realizes what his father is doing. Abdullah and Pari were inseparable but are now torn apart.
What follows is a series of interlocking stories of those affected by Saboor’s action, told via multiple narrators, in different methods of delivery, and covering lives that shift and change with the circumstances in which they find themselves. With these stories come pairings that are as unlikely as they are logical as the result of life and its ebb and flow.
In The Kite Runner, Hosseini focused on the relationships between fathers and sons. In A Thousand Splendid Suns, he examined the relationships between mothers and daughters.
Now, Hosseini looks at the dynamics between various types of siblings. Abdullah and Pari, inseparable until their father pulls them apart. A beautiful, invalid girl and her twin, the plain caregiver. An outgoing, devil-may-care young businessman and his cousin, a shy doctor. A man who struggles as a laborer and his brother-in-law who lives a relatively good life as a servant to a wealthy but unlikely couple. None of the character’s lives are cut and dried, black and white. Tints and shades of gray weave in and out of their separate and collective histories, giving a depth to each that makes compelling reading.
At its core, the book isn’t about war, it isn’t about politics, and it isn’t about Afghanistan on a contemporary global stage. It is about the people of the story and their humanity—good or bad, helpful or harmful—toward others and toward themselves. Under the difficult circumstances each finds himself or herself, is it little wonder that there’s always a question they can’t always answer: Are there any regrets? Hosseini brings so much more to the face of Afghanistan than can be gleaned from nightly news reports and award-winning photojournalism. The effects of modern history are represented by the many volunteer relief workers from far-flung corners of the world.
The book is also about loss, lingering loss, a loss that is felt deeply, a loss that has no name. Hosseini describes it hauntingly via Pari. At age six, Pari is plucked from Afghanistan by her adoptive mother Nila, a half-French/half-Afghan poet, and relocated to Paris. All she had of the adoptive father who loved her were a few photos of him. Hosseini writes:
“Seeing her father’s face in those photos stirred an old sensation in Pari, a feeling that she had had for as long as she could remember. That 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 it felt so clear, this absence, so intimately close it made her heart lurch.”
And so it is for other characters: Abdullah, who loses his sister and step brother; their step mother Parwana who made a difficult choice regarding the care of her twin; Idris, the young doctor whose inaction results in self-loathing; and the cook and chauffeur whose idea it was to give Pari to Nila and Suleiman.
Later in life, Pari reflects, “…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 a puzzle…Like you have missed the beginning of a story and now you are in the middle of it, trying to understand.”
Only from Khaled Hosseini could these words come together to give a name to loss while invoking hope, gathering the gray areas of good intentions with the dark recesses of calculated appearances. His writing wreaks havoc with emotions and induces great heartache, all the while pushing toward answers and resolutions to remind us that life is so much more than an adventure. Life is never easy, but it’s always worth fighting for, whether one engages in an act of mercy or an act of redemption.
Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where she freelances in advertising and public relations. Between assignments, she writes fiction, enjoys wine, and heads to the beach as often as she can.