‘And the Mountains Echoed’ by Khaled Hosseini
After six years, beloved novelist Khaled Hosseini returns to the rugged landscape of his home country, Afghanistan, which he so evocatively brought to life in his two previous bestsellers, “The Kite Runner” and “A Thousand Splendid Suns.” In “And the Mountains Echoed,’’ however, Hosseini expands his scope from a rural village to Kabul, Paris, San Francisco, and the Greek isle of Tinos.
In a series of interlocking story lines with shifting viewpoints, Hosseini delves into the joys, sorrows, and betrayals that alternately bind and fracture families. Once again, Hosseini’s lovingly rendered Afghanistan takes center stage, but in this book he extends his examination to encompass how the Afghan identity affects his characters’ decisions and lives in unfamiliar environments.
“I suspect the truth is that we are waiting, all of us, against insurmountable odds, for something extraordinary to happen to us,” says Nabi, one of the novel’s (many) protagonists, a sentiment that echoes throughout the book as the characters struggle with love and sacrifice, honor and unimaginable shame.
Hosseini opens in 1952 in the village of Shadbagh, where a poor day laborer, Saboor, tells a story to his children, 10-year-old Abdullah and 4-year-old Pari, about the monstrous div, a beast that steals children from villages and takes them to his mountain lair. The lessons of this fable resonate later in the novel, but the story simply runs on too long, sapping the emotional power of the opening. As is the case in other sections of the novel, narrative compression would have served Hosseini better.
The dour, “closed-off” Saboor takes his children on the two-day walk to Kabul to find work with his brother-in-law, Nabi, who is employed by a rich, well-connected family, Suleiman and Nila Wahdati. The children are unaware that Saboor plans to sell Pari to the Wahdatis. The heartbreaking transaction takes place quickly, but not without apprehension on Nabi’s part — as he notes later, “I took those two helpless children, in whom love of the simplest and purest kind had found expression, and I tore one from the other.”
After some backstory about Saboor and his second wife, Nabi takes over the narration, covering the time period from 1947 until 2002 in a broad letter written to the house’s next occupant, Markos Varvaris, a plastic surgeon who arrives as an aid worker in the wake of the Taliban’s brutality in the early 2000s.
Among other events, we learn that Suleiman fell ill and eventually died, willing everything to Nabi (whom he secretly loved), and Nila fled to Paris with Pari. Later, we follow Nila’s life in Paris as a renowned, alcoholic poet noted for her highly sexualized verse, her daughter Pari’s adventures in the wake of her mother’s (in)famous reputation, and Abdullah’s life in San Francisco, where, eventually, he experiences a remarkable reunion with his long-lost sister.
Readers flocked to “The Kite Runner” and “A Thousand Splendid Suns” because Hosseini so richly illuminated an unfamiliar world, but where those novels were tight, tense, and thrumming with life, “And the Mountains Echoed” is occasionally unwieldy, seemingly a victim of the author’s ambition. While Hosseini’s storytelling skills are intact, and devoted fans will find plenty of echoes of the author’s previous novels, there are simply too many strands crossing each other, competing for significance over the many decades.
After returning in 2009 to the village of Shadbagh and the warlord who now runs it from behind his walled compound, Hosseini again switches the narration to the viewpoint of Markos, who recounts his childhood and coming of age on the island of Tinos. While studded with occasional insights reflecting the restlessness of many of Hosseini’s characters (“Hadn’t we . . . yearned for escape, reinvention, new identities? Hadn’t we each, in the end, unmoored ourselves by cutting loose the anchors that weighed us down?”) and elegant descriptions of the sun-soaked Grecian coast and the verve of young love, this section is the novel’s most extraneous.
It’s also indicative of Hosseini’s tendency to expand into irrelevant areas where more straightforward storytelling, focused squarely on the lives of his Afghan characters both at home and abroad, would have been more effective.
The author adeptly bookends the narrative with the central plot line involving Pari and Abdullah. And Nila’s exploits, which are mostly related in the form of her interviews with a French arts magazine, are often amusing. However, the Markos thread derails much of the momentum, and Hosseini struggles to pull us back in before the heartwarming closing pages remind us why the author has attracted such an ardent following.