And the Mountains Echoed

Monday, July 15, 2013

Like many serious readers, I hate the "what's your favorite book" question.  Neil Gaiman recently said (and I
am shamelessly paraphrasing here) that trying to pick your five favorite books is like trying to decide which five limbs you don't need.  I can tell you books I've loved recently, or books I loved at various stages of my life.  I can tell you I loved a book I forgot I even read if you remind me what it's about!  My "favorite" book is a function of who I am today, and tomorrow that could change.

There are, however, a few books that moved me so profoundly that they are permanently fixed in my "favorites" category.  I prefer to call them "book you should read before you die". One of those books is A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.  It is a true masterpiece, raw and powerful, a master class on creating rich settings and authentic characters.  Now, Hosseini is back with another story about the history and people of Afghanistan.  This time, he explores not just Afghan culture, but how the intersection of Afghan and Western culture affects his characters.

And the Mountains Echoed begins with an Afghan folktale about a father's love for his daughter.  That theme runs throughout the novel, with characters finding these familial relationships tested by poverty and secrets and history.  The book highlights the many ways that families can nurture or hurt each other, and the many sacrifices that we make in an effort to give our children the best possible chance in life.  The narrator changes at different points in the story, as the action moves from the Afghan countryside to Kabul to Europe and America.  The characters are all connected to each other in a delicate web of relationships-parents, children, siblings, spouses.  The plot is intricately crafted, with each section picking up from the one previous in ways that show the interconnectedness of us all.

The most poignant part for me was the relationship between chauffeur Nabi and his rich employer.  Despite the fact that Nabi is the catalyst for one of the most heart-wrenching betrayals in the book, through his story you are able to see his inherent goodness and compassion.  When his employer's wife deserts him after a sudden illness, it is left to Nabi to stay and take care of him, and the relationship that develops shows how deeply Hosseini understands the ties that bind us to the people we love, even outside of blood relations.

Hosseini does his usual good job exposing the inequalities of men and women in Afghan society, in a way that is not politicized or overly dramatic.  Each of the female characters in forced by circumstance to either conform to the gender roles assigned to them, or to escape.  Parwana is bound to her village in order to care for her disabled sister, and lives a desperate life of unfulfilled dreams of love.  Nila Wahdati, spoiled daughter of a wealthy family, writes poems about love, desire, and sex in 1950s Kabul, and is ultimately driven away from her husband and her country to escape the beautiful cage she felt she was living in.  Though she is by no means a sympathetic character, you can't help but feel sad for her desperate attempts to find love and happiness outside of herself, since she never finds it within.  Even the female characters who never lived in Afghanistan, the daughters of the original main characters, struggle to meet the responsibilities that their parents place on them as good Afghan women.  And the Mountains Echoed is not on my "read before you die" list, but it is definitely one of my favorites of the moment.

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