The third novel by Afghan American author Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, will likely confound many readers and critics. An ensemble piece spanning generations and continents, it is overpopulated and underplotted, yet the story’s meticulous and cerebral character studies, drawn in languid, often beautiful prose, reflect the author’s ambition. Hosseini no longer contents himself with exploring basic human emotions — though there is plenty of that here, especially concerning the enduring love between forcibly separated siblings — but plunges into “the wildly conflicting truths that [reside] within a person,” and how ordinary people react to trying circumstances they help create.
The various and sometimes only briefly intersecting storylines, which employ different narrative techniques, are held together by the flimsiest of conceits: residence in, or even glancing association with, a villa in Kabul at some point over several decades. In 1952, the house belongs to the patrician and aloof Suleiman Wahdati, seen through the eyes of his driver and cook, Nabi, who narrates this segment. Nabi grows infatuated with Suleiman’s younger and unhappy wife, Nila, who is incapable of having children, and comes up with a way to alleviate her misery.
Nabi proposes that his impoverished brother-in-law back in their village, Shadbagh, sell his 3 1/2-year-old daughter Pari (Nabi’s sister’s stepdaughter) to Nila and Suleiman. “The finger cut, to save the hand” — so goes the logic employed by Pari’s anguished father. The plan, which also entails preventing further contact between Pari and her original family, earns everyone’s agreement — except that of little Pari and her 10-year-old brother Abdullah.
The plan is implemented, but severing familial bonds proves no easy matter. Abdullah, who winds up in northern California as an adult, continues to pine for Pari and even names his daughter for her.
Meanwhile, Pari grows up in France. Though unable to remember her infancy, she feels that her life is missing something and grasps at blurred recollections and vague sensations. “What Pari had always wanted from her mother was the glue to bond together her loose, disjointed scraps of memory, to turn them into some sort of cohesive narrative.” But Nila doesn’t fill in the gaps.
A careful reader will notice that Hosseini reuses certain framing devices featured in his earlier books; for example, the section narrated by Nabi assumes the form of a letter read by its recipient only after Nabi’s death. In a segment devoted to Nabi’s sisters, Hosseini borrows directly from another author: a crucial scene between Parwana as a girl and her beautiful and popular sister Masooma is almost straight out of John Knowles’ novel A Separate Peace.
Yet the stories themselves — set mainly in Afghanistan, France, Greece and California — are Hosseini’s, as are their recurring motifs. One of the most powerful and unsettling themes is coming to terms with something you find morally unacceptable. Young Adel, who resides with his parents in a mansion built in part on the ruins of the hut inhabited by Pari’s destitute family in Shadbagh before they became refugees, is shocked to discover that his father, a hero of the war against the Soviet occupation, financed its construction with opium money. But the precocious Adel is aware of “[t]he part of him that over time would gradually, almost imperceptibly, accept this new identity that at present prickled like a wet wool sweater.”
Throughout And the Mountains Echoed, the author’s heavy reliance on sentimentality rankles somewhat; after bravely devising a novel that focuses on characters’ contemplative and drawn-out reactions to critical events, rather than the events themselves, Hosseini apparently fears that his ruminative approach will tax the reader’s patience, so he pumps in personal mini-tragedies, various displays of the debilitating effects of aging, and tearful reunions. Yet most of the novel remains compulsively readable, in large part because he probes his characters’ psyches in a nuanced and poetic manner.
In this respect, And the Mountains Echoed attains a greater level of complexity than its two predecessors, despite its more meandering trajectory, and signals the ongoing maturation of a gifted storyteller.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer in Beirut, Lebanon.