(Spoiler Alert: The Mountains Don’t Echo Merrily)
I can often determine whether I love a book if they’re great enough to evoke an intense emotional response from me in public. With writers like George Saunders and Steve Almond, I become maniacal in my laughter on a bus or in front of Moreland, only stopping to laugh so that I can get to their next moment of tragic hilarity. And although I sometimes feel self conscious about those laughing fits, they’re far eclipsed by the potential discomfort of publicly weeping while reading a book like the time I read the latter half of Edwidge Danticat’s Breathe, Eyes, Memory in a Woodland mall, crying over the suicide of the main character’s mother while the woman nearby me passed out sesame chicken samples to upper middle class Texans who were taking a break from scoring some Bermuda shorts. While the frequency of such occurrences have lessened to some extent over the years, perhaps because I’m less surprised by how tragic things can turn out for decent folks, I knew when I received Khaled Hosseini’s latest book in the mail that it would be a cry-inducer.
Fortunately, I had the foresight to read the book mostly at home at the chair I bought exclusively for reading purposes or in my room when I should have gone to bed, but one more chapter seemed too promising to pass up. During those early readings, I felt a little cold towards the story. It starts out with a character telling an Afghan folktale to his children while on their trek to Kabul from their small town of Shadbagh about a being that takes children away, and right then you can tell that things are not going to turn out well for one or both of the children being told the story. Although I enjoyed the tale, and Hosseini’s delivery of it through the character as he stops once in a while to comfort or scold his children, I was wary that Hosseini may have be going too on the nose with it because soon after the five-year old daughter, Pari, is sold off to a wealthy couple that lives in Kabul, setting up the goal for Pari and her older brother Abdullah, with whom several characters remark she shares an intensely close bond, reunion by the book’s end.
However, I feel now like I was being a pessimistic jerk in that early portion of the book because Hosseini goes on to tell the story of their reunion in a circuitous manner that rarely features either sibling. Instead, each chapter focuses on a different character associated to the siblings in one form or another. One chapter is written as a long letter from the siblings’ uncle Nabi, the executor of Pari’s sale and perhaps even more of a narrative focal point than either sibling, where he describes the circumstances leading to and following that event, making Nabi not only a sympathetic figure but also one of the most endearing characters as we learn that his actions are a result of intense longing for one of his employers. Another chapter is told from the point-of-view of Nabi’s one-time neighbor who has sinced moved to the United States and become a surgeon, chronicling his visit to Kabul following the end of Russian occupancy. The chapter provides one of the most interesting as it explores the complex relationship some Afghan-Americans have in considering their own identities in the face of their family’s emigration during one of Afghanistan’s most trying times. It’s later balanced by a chapter focusing on the son of an Afghan war criminal who is unaware of his father’s misdeeds until late in the chapter where he views the type of action that has allowed him and his family to live well at the cost of others.
Despite Pari and Abdullah’s absence in much of the novel, the idea of siblings echoes (couldn’t help myself) throughout as we see different siblings, biological or not, grapple with the unique relationships they share with each other, providing a person who understands them in a manner that no parents, lovers, or friends do. That’s why even when we do get to the foregone conclusion of Pari and Abdullah’s reunion, we still feel as though we’ve been with them all this time as we see the many shapes their relationship could have taken had they not been separated earlier in life, making for a much more satisfying read than if the book had followed each character step-by-step.
With this latest novel, Hosseini to explore Afghanistan’s rich history while looking at a type of love not spoken or written about enough, and so long as it’s of this quality I’ll be sure to read whatever he releases. O and in case you’re curious, I did end up crying in public on a pretty spring day during the chapter where a character’s mother commits suicide. Go figure.