And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

And the Mountains Echoed 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.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

When journalist Gayle Lemmon was looking for a subject that hadn’t already been given a lot of news coverage, she became intrigued by the topic of female entrepreneurs working in war zones. Travelling to post-Taliban Afghanistan, Lemmon intended to report on women who were running their own businesses. Unfortunately finding female business owners at first proved more difficult than she had expected, but eventually she heard about Kamila Sidiqi. In The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, subtitled Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe, Lemmon tells Sidiqi’s amazing story.

After receiving her teacher training certificate from college in 1996, Kamila Sidiqi was looking forward to going to university and becoming a teacher like her elder sisters, when the Taliban took control of Kabul and everything changed almost overnight. Suddenly women found their freedom stripped away from them. Required to wear the chadri (full-length burqa) and unable to go outdoors without being accompanied by a male relative, the options available for a woman to earn her living became very limited.

Trying to find a way of making money that would still comply with the Taliban’s rules, Kamila decided to set herself up as a seamstress, making clothes in her own living room and selling them to local tailor’s shops. As the weeks and months went by, Kamila’s dressmaking business grew in size and reputation until eventually she and her sisters and several of their neighbours were working round the clock to meet their orders. Kamila also came up with the idea of starting a school to teach other girls from the neighbourhood the basics of dressmaking, enabling them to support themselves and their families.

Throughout the book you can never forget the danger Kamila was in and the risks she was taking. For example, there’s a frightening moment where she and two female friends are caught taking a bus to Pakistan without their mahram (male companion). Kamila’s courage and quick-thinking really shines through in situations like this.

Lemmon has a nice clear writing style, and the book is as easy to read as fiction. As well as being a fascinating story, I also found The Dressmaker of Khair Khana completely inspiring. Kamila and her sisters refused to be defeated, searched for solutions to every problem and managed to prosper despite the oppressive conditions they were forced to live under.


The Dressmaker of Khair Khana will be published by HarperCollins in March 2011. I received a review copy as an ebook from NetGalley.

Review: The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye

The term ‘sweeping epic’ is used so often it’s become a cliché, but it’s actually an accurate description of The Far Pavilions. M. M. Kaye takes us on a journey across 19th century India and Afghanistan, during which we witness some of the major turning points in the history of those two countries.

Ashton Pelham-Martyn is born in India, the son of British professor Hilary Pelham-Martyn and his wife Isobel. When both of his parents die within a few years of each other, the four year-old Ash is brought up by Sita, the wife of his father’s Hindu groom, unaware that he is not actually Indian. Several years later, after Sita’s death, Ash learns the truth about his birth and is sent to school in England. Eventually he returns to India to serve in the British army, but finds that his loyalties are torn between his Indian friends and the members of his regiment. The Far Pavilions is the story of Ash’s struggle to find his identity.

At the heart of the story is a forbidden romance between Ash and the Hindu princess, Anjuli. However, that’s only one aspect of the book. Non-romance fans will enjoy the action and adventure, descriptions of military life or simply learning more about 19th century British-ruled India. Most of the battles and other historical events mentioned in the book did actually take place and several of the characters, such as Walter Hamilton and Louis Cavagnari, were real historical figures – you may find it interesting to do some research as you read.

Of all the historical fiction books I’ve read, this is one of the most detailed and well researched. Whilst reading this book I’ve learned a huge amount about 19th century British India, from the names of mountains and rivers, details of battles and mutinies, facts about Hindu and Islamic culture, right down to the various types of flora and fauna. We encounter a large number of Indian words and phrases (most are explained either directly in the text or in the glossary at the back of the book) which feels natural and adds to the authenticity of the story. M. M. Kaye spent a lot of time living in India which explains how she was able to write so convincingly about the country and its people. It’s also interesting that although the author was British, she uses various characters in the novel to explore conflicting opinions on whether British rule was a good or a bad thing for India.

At more than 950 pages it does sometimes feel as if the book will never end, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing because it’s one of those books that pulls you into the story so much that you don’t really want to reach the last page and leave behind the characters you’ve spent so much time with. However, the main storyline comes to a natural end at around page 700 and the book could easily have finished at this point in my opinion. The final 200 or so pages deal with the Second Anglo-Afghan War which is still interesting to read about but could have been the subject of a separate book.

The Far Pavilions is one of my all-time favourite historical fiction novels.

Highly Recommended

Genre: Historical Fiction/Pages: 960/Publisher: Penguin/Year: 1978/Source: My own copy bought newThis review is part of my Great Books series.

Review: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner is the story of two boys growing up together in Afghanistan. Amir is the son of a rich businessman, whereas Hassan is the son of their Hazara servant (an ethnic minority and considered to be lower on the social scale). Amir has always felt that his father is disappointed in him and he desperately wants to please him by winning the local kite fighting tournament (a sport where competitors fly kites with strings coated in cut glass and attempt to cut down their rivals’ kites in order to have the last kite still flying). Hassan is the ‘kite runner’ of the book’s title. When Amir wins the tournament, Hassan chases the fallen kite so Amir can present it to his father. When Hassan is ambushed by a gang of bullies he refuses to give them the kite, knowing how much it means to his friend, and as a consequence is assaulted by the gang leader. Amir witnesses this but is too afraid to intervene.

Several years later during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Amir and his father flee to America to start a new life – but Amir is unable to escape from the shame and guilt that have haunted him ever since the day of the kite fighting tournament when he stood by and watched Hassan being raped.

There were times when I almost forgot this was fiction, as the book had the feel of an autobiography, particularly in the early chapters which were quite vivid and realistic. Amir, as the narrator of the book, is not a very likeable character. As a child he is weak and cowardly and betrays a loyal friend who would do anything for him. As an adult I still found him difficult to like, though I could sympathise with him and wanted to see him redeem himself.

One of the things I liked about this book was learning more about Afghanistan from the point of view of a child growing up in a wealthy district of Kabul. Amir and his father had a comfortable, privileged lifestyle and the Kabul described in the early chapters of the book is certainly not the way we picture Kabul today. The Kite Runner shows how everything changed with the Soviet invasion and then the Taliban regime – and changed so much that Amir, returning to Afghanistan later in the book, remarked that he felt like a tourist in his own country. One horrifying scene describes the Taliban stoning two people to death in front of a crowded stadium during a soccer match.

The writing style used throughout this book is very simplistic with lots of short or incomplete sentences. Although it didn’t spoil the story for me, I did find it distracting. Another problem I had was that halfway through the book the plot became too predictable and I could guess how the story was going to end. Despite those few negative points, The Kite Runner is an emotional, thought-provoking story with some heartbreaking scenes and some horrific ones. Although I have read some very mixed reviews of this book (people seem to either love it or hate it) in my opinion it’s definitely well worth reading.


Genre: General Fiction/Pages: 324/Publisher: Bloomsbury/Year: 2004/Source: Library book

Review: The Moonlit Cage by Linda Holeman

“I have always been told I was wicked…”

This is the first book I’ve read by Linda Holeman and it was good enough to make me want to read more of her work.
I love books that help me to learn about other times and other places: in The Moonlit Cage, Holeman introduces us to life in 19th century Afghanistan. Not being an expert in Afghan history or culture, I have no idea how accurate her descriptions are, but the book seems very well-researched to me. A glossary of unfamiliar Dari and Pashto words is included at the back of the book, but I didn’t feel the need to refer to this very often as most of the words were explained as we encountered them in the text.
 The story is narrated by Darya, a young Afghan girl. All her life Darya has refused to conform to others’ expectations and secretly dreams of one day finding freedom. When her father’s second wife, Sulima, puts a curse on her, Darya is forced to leave her village and is sold into marriage with the son of a nomadic chief. However, when her husband learns about the curse and threatens to kill her, she runs away again. As she escapes through the Hindu Kush mountains, she meets David Ingram and begins a journey which takes her first to India and then to London.

I really enjoyed this book and found it difficult to put down. The first two thirds, which took place in Afghanistan and India, were fascinating, though I didn’t like the way the storyline developed after Darya’s arrival in England. The only other problem I had with the book was that while Darya was an interesting, likeable character, I found David Ingram, as the hero of the story, quite boring and two-dimensional.I admired the way Darya’s strength and courage helped her to survive all kinds of pain and abuse.

After reading the first couple of chapters I decided that this book would count towards the Women Unbound reading challenge. Throughout the entire story, Darya constantly questions why she has to behave in a certain way just because she’s a woman and challenges the belief that daughters are worthless and only sons are of value.
I knew nothing about this book until I found it in the library (on the “H” shelf next to Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner which coincidentally is also set in Afghanistan) so I was surprised by how good it was. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys long historical fiction novels…but you can prepare to be saddened and shocked by Darya’s story.
Genre: Historical Fiction/Pages: 544/Publisher: Headline Review/Year: 2006/Source: Library book