Khaled Hosseini is a gifted storyteller. In his new novel, And the Mountains Echoed, his first in six years, he reminds readers why so many millions loved his earlier books, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns.
In And the Mountains Echoed Hosseini weaves a complex pattern of interlinked lives like a finely knotted carpet. This is a tale of separations, and of people searching for what they sense is missing. Parents get separated from their children. Brothers get separated from their sisters. Neighbours get separated from their friends. And at its heart, though much of the book takes place in Europe and the United States, And the Mountains Echoed is about the consequences of Afghans becoming separated from Afghanistan.
There is an Afghan farmer so poor he is forced to sell his three-year-old daughter to a wealthy childless couple. There is the woman in Kabul who takes the girl hoping she will fill the void of her marriage. There is the girl herself who years later in Paris unscrambles nagging doubts about her origins with the unexpected help of a step-uncle she barely remembers.
As each character moves from place to place, or from poverty to riches, or from humility to arrogance, all long to find their way back to what has been taken from them. Time slips back and forward, as readers move into the lives of the characters and each character leaves a mark on our hearts.
Hosseini begins with the kind of moral-laden tale that master storytellers in our part of the world have crafted into an art form over the centuries. A horrific monster, a div with a horned head and a heavy tail, comes to a village to demand the sacrifice of a child. With every step the div takes, the earth shakes. The div randomly selects one house and instructs the family huddled within either to give him all their children, or to select one.
In the end, they hand over their favourite son, whose name, like mine, is Qais. It is a wrenching decision, and its consequences echo through all the lives that Hosseini explores in this book.
My mother used to tell us these kinds of stories. Though they sometimes terrified us, they also enthralled us, which was the whole point, as hundreds of rockets rained down around us every day in Kabul during the civil war that followed the Soviet occupation. The commanders of warring factions, like the div, fed their lust for power with the deaths of innocents. My mother's goal was to keep us distracted so we would not be frightened every time the earth shook from a nearby explosion.
Like Hosseini and all great Afghan storytellers, she could keep a story going for days, exploring every possible corner of the lives of those who inhabited it, and kept us eager to hear what was coming next, even when, as in this book, we knew that parts of the story would be heartbreaking.
When Hosseini writes about the old Afghanistan, before the civil war and the Taliban, his words are sweet, his sentences filled with the joy he knew there from his childhood. When he writes of the Afghanistan of today, his tone turns darker.
And when he writes of the Afghans forced into new lives in other places, his storytelling carries an ache, even when the lives of the exiles turn out well. As the woman who was sold as a girl starts to remember her first years, she "feels a hole opening up in her. There has been in her life, all her life, a great absence. Somehow, she has always known."
Reconciliation with the past is never complete for these people. And their separate ways of dealing with that adds to their interest. One chooses suicide, another loyal servitude. One named Timur calls himself "Tim" in California.
Even as these characters create new lives, they are always gripped by the past. Abdullah, an exile in California running a restaurant he calls Abe's Kabob House, explains to his American-born daughter why she must study Farsi: "if culture was a house, then language was the key to the front door, to all the rooms inside. Without it, he said, you ended up wayward, without a proper home or a legitimate identity."
If there is a weakness to And the Mountains Echoed, it is that Hosseini almost tries to tell too many stories. The result is that several intriguing characters get mentioned, then disappear. A girl name Roshi, orphaned and nearly killed during a family massacre, is adopted by a Bosnian nurse, recovers with the support of two Afghan-American cousins making their first visit back to Kabul, has a final enigmatic scene, and then is never mentioned again. Nor are the cousins, nor the nurse, except in passing.
Even as it captures the sadness and regret that engulfs its characters' lives, Hosseini's storytelling is filled with love and joy and a deep sense of hope. And the Mountains Echoed is a deeply moving elegy to what might have been.
Qais Akbar Omar is the author of the recently-published memoir A Fort of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Story.