Having read both of Khaled Hosseini’s previous novels, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, I was excited when I discovered that he had written a new book. It’s been a long time since A Thousand Splendid Suns but his third novel, And the Mountains Echoed, was worth waiting for. It’s a gentler book than the previous two and much less harrowing. I didn’t learn as much about life in Afghanistan as I did from the other two books and this one doesn’t go into much depth on the Soviet invasion or the horrifying events of the Taliban years, but it’s still a very powerful and emotional novel. It’s a story about families, about the relationships between brothers and sisters, parents and children, and husbands and wives.
In 1952, Saboor and his young children, Abdullah and Pari, set out on a journey from their small village in rural Afghanistan to the capital city of Kabul. The two children have a very close and loving relationship; Abdullah has taken on the role of a parent to his little sister since their mother died when Pari was a baby. They are happy to have the chance to spend some time together on the journey, but what they don’t know is that when they reach Kabul something is going to happen that will change both of their lives forever.
As the story moves through the generations and across continents, we also get to know a variety of other characters, all of whom are connected in one way or another to the family we met at the beginning of the book. These include Uncle Nabi, who leaves home to work for a rich family in Kabul, and his employer’s wife, Nila Wahdati, a poet. Then there’s Markos, a plastic surgeon from Greece who is working for a charity in Kabul, and Adel, son of a famous Afghan warlord who slowly discovers that his father may not be as heroic as he seems. A whole chapter is devoted to each character’s story, which made the novel feel almost like a collection of short stories. Some of them are more interesting than others, but they all share the same themes: the effects of years of conflict on a country and its people, and the suffering of families torn apart by war or poverty.
I found this book to be much wider in scope than either The Kite Runner or A Thousand Splendid Suns; it begins with one family in Afghanistan but over the course of the novel we are taken to America, Paris and the Greek Islands and meet a huge number of characters. This was not necessarily a good thing, though; sometimes I felt that the focus had moved too far away from the storylines I was most interested in and the novel started to lose some of its magic and become less compelling. One of my favourite chapters was actually the first one, in which Saboor tells Abdullah and Pari a fairytale about Baba Ayub, whose son is stolen away by a div (a type of monster). Ideas and metaphors introduced in this opening chapter run through the entire novel, which I thought was very clever.
Early in the book someone mentions that a story can be like a train – you can jump onboard anywhere but will get to the same destination eventually. That’s a good description of And the Mountains Echoed, as the story is not told in strict chronological order – as well as moving from one character to another, we also jumps backwards and forwards in time within each chapter – but when we do finally reach the end, everything comes together to bring the novel to a beautiful and moving conclusion.