This novel is like a series of short stories, woven together by the characters within them who touch on each other’s lives over generations and across different continents.
It starts in 1952 in rural Afghanistan with the story of young Abdullah who has taken on the role of bringing up his young sister, Pari, while his father tries to find work and his step mother tends to the baby she has recently given birth to. The two siblings are very close and have developed a special bond. The family struggles to make ends meet and one day, when the children’s step uncle visits from Kabul, he makes the father an offer, which will break poor Abdullah’s heart and tear his family apart.
The novel doesn’t dwell on this heartbreak, but moves on swiftly to the stories of other characters who are affected in some way or another by the father’s acceptance of his brother-in-law’s offer. It travels back and forth in time and in place from Afghanistan to Greece, Paris and the USA, finally returning to the two siblings who we met and fell in love with at the very beginning.
We are given a hint of what the novel might be about in the first chapter when the father tells Abdullah and Pari a story about a farmer Baby Ayub who is forced to give up his favourite child to the ‘div’ (demon) and consequently undertakes a long and onerous journey to challenge the creature and try to win back his son. It is this fable and its underlying theme that is threaded throughout And the Mountains Echoed.
This is Khaled Hosseini’s third novel and structurally very different from the The Kite Runner and the wonderful A Thousand Splendid Suns. However, for me, although lacking the emotional impact of the first two, it is equally as strong in the way it draws us in with its sense of place, the beautiful and lyrical prose and the attention to detail. It is this detail that succeeds in transporting us to Hosseini’s worlds and his recollections of real places.
I do think, however, that some of the stories are better than others in this book. Those set in Afghanistan especially are very strong and the author has this wonderful ability to conjure up a country and a culture so alien, yet so familiar. His stories set in Greece and Paris are less successful and I felt that he spent too much time on them.
In terms of emotional impact, I think that Hosseini makes it quite difficult for the reader to get too close to the main characters in this novel as, just as we start to absorb ourselves in one story, it is wrenched away from us and we are transported into another one. At the beginning, we want to hold onto Abdullah and Pari, and follow their journeys through to the end, but we aren’t allowed to. This may be a deliberate technique on Hosseini’s part. In the same way that his characters are taken away from their families because of poverty and war, perhaps we are supposed to identify with their situations more by feeling the same sense of frustration and estrangement.
A powerful multi-generational story of families and siblings, and the choices they are forced to make, written by the master of storytelling. I’m already looking forward to Hosseini’s fourth novel.