Book review: ‘And the Mountains Echoed’

From a little further back …

“And the Mountains Echoed”; By Khaled Hosseini, 402 pages; Riverhead Books (Penguin Group); 2013

The challenge for Khaled Hosseini these days is enormous. Much like a mountain climber preparing to attack Mount Everest from an isolated base camp, reaching the next level must appear … next to impossible.

While an author’s journey through literary peaks, crevices and jagged inclines laden with frost don’t pose the same physical challenges, the toll on a writer’s psyche in dealing with the pressures to follow one great book with another is something beyond the grasp of only the savviest readers. Indeed, there are no sherpas to serve as guides for a writer in such enviable but hazardous territory.

Imagine, then, the writing career of Hosseini, whose first novel was the widely acclaimed and wildly successful “The Kite Runner.” Released in 2003 in a post-9/11 world still rife with anti-Muslim rhetoric and angst, the beautifully told and sometimes horrifying story of boys growing to manhood in an Afghanistan torn by decades of war not only against an invading global superpower but with its own brutal cultural strife, captivated millions of readers as an international bestseller. Slow to catch an American audience at first, “The Kite Runner” ultimately became a publishing phenomenon in 2005, when it became a bestseller in America.

Hosseini, a medical doctor and native of Afghanistan who now lives in California, followed it up in 2007 with “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” a sprawling novel once again set in the country that was once his home. With its publication he cemented himself as a formidable storyteller here for the long haul — one who achingly chronicles the scarred lives of people who know little else. Yet, they find hope beyond obvious utter hopelessness.

While it hardly seems like a formula for success, it certainly proved to be. Hosseini’s first two novels sold more than 38 million copies worldwide and 10 million in the U.S. But with the acclaim and financial windfall comes the most troubling question an author can face — one that has plagued estimable writers from Normal Mailer to Joseph Heller.

What next?

Hosseini answers in 2013 with “And the Mountains Echoed,” a lyrical and ambitious tale encompassing a half-century of life in Afghanistan — a country of trauma, misery and odd beauty where no one escapes unscathed. In Afghanistan, it seems, there is too much loss to go around.

For Hosseini, it’s a rich mine of tragedy, drama, sacrifice and ultimately sadness. He uses all of these elements to weave a simple yet complex story of how a singular event shaped the future of one otherwise inconsequential family of a non-descript Afghani village and how their lives then touched others in ways that aren’t always obvious.

A flair for nuance typically sets Hosseini’s work apart from the legion of lesser novelists today. Here, he brings that formidable ability to fruition. “And the Mountains Echoed” is far from a straight-forward story. Hosseini weaves in and out of decades from the late 1950s to 2010 knitting together multiple characters into one plotline on myriad continents. Its triumph is in making all these seemingly unconnected storylines coherent, but still make readers work for their reward. Hosseini pirouettes and pivots from the poor village in the countryside to Kabul, Paris and San Francisco. Most of the time, it’s a storytelling device that serves Hosseini well. Only on one or two occasions will readers potentially find themselves puzzled, But those moments are brief and Hosseini usually finds his footing again.

Family, as always, is the core of Hosseini’s work. He creates rich characters capable of boundless love but in situations where torment is an equal. Sorrow is a constant visitor. “And the Mountains Echoed” is full of tortured people tossed forever askew by either accepting responsibility or failing to do so.  Indeed, if loss in the most recurring theme in the book, obligation runs a close second.

This passage speaks to it.

Baba cleared his throat and looked out the window at the dark sky and clouded over moon, his eyes liquid with emotion.

“Everything will remind me of you.”

It was in the tender, slightly panicky way he spoke those words that I knew my father was a wounded person, that his love for me was as true, vast and permanent as the sky, and that it would always bear down upon me. It was the kind of love that sooner or later cornered you into a choice: either you tore free or you stayed and withstood its rigor, even as it squeezed you into something smaller than yourself.

Unlike “The Kite Runner” or “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” which had moments of joy and laughter amid the calamity and terror, there is little happiness here. Even the smallest of triumphs are tinged with heartbreak. And in another departure, Hosseini presents his characters with choices. These flawed people are not merely enduring circumstances beyond their control. The choices they face aren’t always the best ones, but options exist — and have consequences that reverberate for decades.

That’s what responsibility is all about.

It is to Hosseini’s credit that he decided to tackle this story at a point in his career when a safe novel could be reasonably expected. In “And the Mountains Echoed” he exposes himself as a writer not only willing to challenge readers, but himself as well.

 

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