The tale of how my father lost his sister was as familiar to me as the stories my mother had told me of the Prophet, tales I would learn again later when my parents would enroll me in Sunday school at a mosque in Hayward. Still, despite the familiarity, each night I asked to hear Pari’s story again, caught in the pull of its gravity. Maybe it was simply because we shared a name. Maybe that was why I sensed a connection between us, dim, enfolded in mystery, real nonetheless. But it was more than that. I felt touched by her, like I too had been marked by what had happened to her. We were interlocked, I sensed, through some unseen order in ways I couldn’t wholly understand, linked beyond our names, beyond familial ties, as if, together, we completed a puzzle. I felt certain that if I listened closely enough to her story, I would discover something revealed about myself.
In the opening chapter of And the Mountains Echoed, a poor father tells his children a story. A monster ravished a town until a child was offered to appease him. In order to save the rest of his family and the town, a father sacrifices his favorite child to the monster. Years later, unable to recover from the sorrow of this decision, the father scales a mountain to reach the monster’s fortress, seeking to bring his son home. But, finding that the boy is happy, well-fed, clothed and educated, he reconsiders. In this story is the core of the tales to come. Hosseini writes of the bond between parents and children, and the sacrifices some parents make to see that their children are well looked after. Does the benefit of a more comfortable home, a richer material upbringing, outweigh the loss of that natural parent-child experience? The theme of parenting, with complications well beyond the keep-or-send-away element, permeates.
The son of a wealthy local big-shot comes to realize that his comforts come at the expense of others. A massively scarred girl is left by her mother in the care of someone who is probably better suited to raise her. A young woman sacrifices years of her life to take care of an ailing parent. A war-ravaged child is taken in by one of her caregivers.
I am forever drawn to family as a recurring central theme of my writing. My earlier novels were at heart tales of fatherhood and motherhood. My new novel is a multi-generational family story as well, this time revolving around brothers and sisters, and the ways in which they love, wound, betray, honor, and sacrifice for each other.
There are sibling issues galore here. An ugly duckling twin gets revenge on the favored twin, but takes on a considerable burden. A brother and sister who were very close, are torn apart at an early age, and must cope with the absence, of that missing other part of themselves. Friendships that seem more like sibling-hood sprout like poppies in Helmand. A Greek boy is joined by the daughter of his mother’s best friend. She remains longer than expected. A fast, but fragile friendship forms between a rich boy in Afghanistan and the son of a poor man.
The cast here is international, as is the selection of settings. Hosseini was born in Kabul, but, as his father was an ambassador, he was exposed to the wider world. Dad was posted in Paris when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Hosseini’s time in France informs the parts of the book that are set there. Eventually his family immigrated to the USA, taking up residence in California, another site in the novel. He has visited his homeland since growing up in the West, like émigrés we meet in these pages. One Afghani emigrant struggles with the tension between remaining connected to his homeland, in a very concrete way, or maintaining his separation. How much responsibility for dealing with Afghanistan’s problems lies with those who have moved away?
Hosseini, best-selling author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns returns us to a world, or rather worlds that we have seen before, a harsh Afghanistan as the emotional and table-setting core, and western locales in which are echoed the events of the old world.
…when you grow up in a Third World country, you know, poverty and affluence are juxtaposed. It’s literally next door — you don’t have to go to another zip code. It’s right there when you walk out in the street, and there are beggars and so on and so forth. So it becomes part of your life, and you can either not, just not reflect on it, but I must have, because I remember my stories always had to do with these things. There was always some guy who came from a very affluent background and some person who came from a much less privileged background, and their lives collided in some way, and tragedy would ensue inevitably. I mean, sort of a recurring theme in my stories
One of the points Hosseini makes here is the commonality of East and West, despite outward differences. He mirrors many of his characters’ experiences. People sacrifice themselves to care for those in need of help in both places. Parents are no less stressed in the West than in the East in terms of struggling with decisions about their children. Pain is too much for some in both worlds. In both worlds there are characters who cannot face their futures and opt out. In both worlds young people sacrifice themselves to care for others. In both worlds there are characters who are seriously damaged physically and must cope with adapting to worlds that value beauty or at the very least normalcy. In both worlds parents give up their children. We really are the same beneath our cultures and histories.
I do not have a comparative character count here, but it was my sense that this was a larger book than his first two. Each of those focused mostly on a smaller group of actors. This time it seemed there was more of an ensemble cast, in multiple stories. The links between some of the elements were a bit tenuous, as if a short story that was lying around was modified enough to serve a purpose in this larger tale and inserted. It is a large landscape and I felt that on occasion we wandered too long away from some of the primary characters, maybe lost some parts of their lives. To compensate for this, when we get back to them, we are offered a reader’s digest condensed report of what has happened since last we checked in. This created a bit of distance.
That said, there is vast world of feeling here. Not only the agony of parents who feel they must give up their children, but the pain of other sundered familial connections as well. There are deep scars of guilt for terrible acts, and the pain of love denied. There is also joy in finding a kind of love where hope was slight, in reconnecting with those long lost, with saving and being saved. The echoes in the mountains are the sounds of tears, of both anguish and joy, universal, penetrating, human. Listen.