A tale of siblings and the ripples of their bitter parting gets a bit tedious towards the end.
By now we’ve come to expect a template with a Khaled Hosseini book: life in pre- and post-war Afghanistan; families and characters that are tragically riven but irrevocably bound; weak, guilt-ridden men and resolute women who pick up the pieces; lives and emotions that span generations and continents; and a redemption that soothes but doesn’t quite heal old wounds.
An underlying theme of forced separation runs through each of his three books. If The Kite Runner was about friends and brothers and A Thousand Splendid Suns about soul sisters, And The Mountains Echoed tells a tale of separated siblings and the ripples that follow their bitter parting.
Hosseini’s readers approach his novels with a comforting sense of déjà vu layered with a delicious anticipation. Because he’s a gifted storyteller who can pin you down for 350 pages and more. However, the going can get a little tedious in his latest book, which journeys from the 1940s to the present day. You do turn the pages, and there are rewards, but there are far too many digressions in the kind of plot that is often (politely) called ‘ambitious’. One of them — the friendship between two young Afghan boys — though charming, could have been done away with altogether. Another, the back story of a Greek doctor, Markos, who works in war-ravaged Afghanistan, takes up over 60 pages and derails the mood just before the climax. Bad timing; you’re in the last stretch and waiting for the denouement when you’re suddenly whisked off for a long sojourn in Greece.
It is in the opening half of the book (set in Afghanistan for the most part) that Hosseini is in masterly form as he tells the tale of young Pari, who’s torn apart from her brother Abdullah in a misguided move that her father, Saboor, believes will offer her a better life. The story then spreads to include the Wahdatis — the laconic husband Suleiman; his tempestuous wife Nila, ever in search of love and lust; and their Man Friday Nabi, who happens to be Pari’s uncle.
Raw and tender, dusted with the soil and hardy spirit of the mountains, this part of the book is vintage Hosseini. The prose may not be layered but it is cleverly used and deeply felt; it touches the right chords, it transports you to the world of the storyteller. And it paints in those shades of grey, those all-too-real frailties that Hosseini is so good at.
Two stories in particular, move and provoke in equal measure. The first is that of Pari’s stepmother Parwana, who holds a soul-searing secret; the second that of Suleiman and Nabi and their unspoken relationship. Hosseini builds them up tantalisingly, throwing a teaser here, a clue there, but manages to take you by surprise at the moment of revelation. In addition, the episode starring expat brothers Idris and Timur, who live in the U.S. and return to the homeland for property matters, is tinged with a delicate irony.
However, it is Nila, the unambiguously selfish coquette, who is the most colourful and charismatic character, her abandon and vanity highlighted by the dour forbearance of most of the other characters. But when Nila sweeps up Pari and jets off to Paris, the spirit goes out of her Kabul mansion and the narrative.
The rest of the story then winds up (or down) slowly, a fair amount devoted to the Markos subplot in Greece. When Pari is finally reunited with Abdullah (no spoiler, this; you can see it coming) it arrives not a moment too soon and you’re overcome by relief after plodding through the last 100 pages. An unfortunate note on which to end a story that began so intriguingly.