Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Review of Khaled Hosseini's And the Mountains Echoed
Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed still reverberates in my mind. Abdullah, Pari, their Uncle Nabi, Idris and Timur, Adel, Marcos, Thalia, and the rest of the novel’s cast of characters pad about my brain as though real people in my life. Their stories span the years between 1949 and 2010, the globe—Afghanistan, Greece, Paris, California—and an expansive range of human experiences. Just as the characters’ older selves are bound to their younger selves and loved ones, so each reader is bound in his own life.

I also felt bound to the fictional Afghan village of Shadbagh and especially to the huge oak tree that played an important part in the lives of so many. To me, the tree represents the histories of the characters and the ax, the seismic changes they saw in their lifetimes. Yet even as the village progresses from mud huts to houses with satellite dishes, our humanity—family ties, cruelty and contempt, compassion and kindness, loyalty, betrayal—stays the same … like Uncle Nabi’s 1940s-model American car that remains behind his house in Kabul for years after his death more than half a century later.

Hosseini’s individual but interrelated stories captivated me. He is a masterful storyteller with an eye for details that bring places and people to life. Chapters in the novel leapfrog years, which I found a little hard to follow. He introduces characters, then gives new vignettes to introduce others, then crisscrosses their stories, then revisits them at key junctures of their lives. I cannot say that Hosseini ties up every loose end, but I found the ending satisfying.

If I better understood Afghanistan’s political history and if Hosseini had kept his stories in chronological order, I would have benefited, but in fact, the individual stories could stand on their own. Each is strong human drama. Also, from his stories, I did get a sense of the Afghan people’s heartache and struggles against corruption and terrorism.

Certain aspects of And the Mountains Echoed touched me more than others. For example, I loved the affection between parents and children in some stories. Here is a particularly sweet anecdote (page 345 in my edition): “When I was a little girl, my father and I had a nightly ritual. After I’d said my twenty-one Bismillahs and he had tucked me into bed, he would sit at my side and pluck bad dreams from my head with his thumb and forefinger. His fingers would hop from my forehead to my temples, patiently searching behind my ears, at the back of my head, and he’d make a pop sound—like a bottle being uncorked—with each nightmare he purged from my brain. He stashed the dreams, one by one, into an invisible sack in his lap and pulled the drawstring tightly. He would then scour the air, looking for happy dreams to replace the ones he had sequestered away. I watched as he cocked his head slightly and frowned, his eyes roaming side to side, like he was straining to hear distant music. I held my breath, waiting for the moment when my father’s face unfurled into a smile, when he sang, Ah, here is one, when he cupped his hands, let the dream land in his palms like a petal slowly twirling down from a tree. Gently, then, so very gently—my father said all good things in life were fragile and easily lost—he would raise his hands to my face, rub his palms against my brow and happiness into my head.” Her childhood memory continues in this enchanting fashion.

Another more sobering story that touched me was Idris’ return to California after a visit to a Kabul hospital as he struggled with how to put compassion into action. And I was fascinated to see in Hosseini’s multigenerational stories how childhood events and feelings shaped the adults. And the Mountains Echoed is rich in potential touching moments, and I hope you will read this novel to find your own.

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