And the Mountains Echoed
- Khaled Hosseini
- Riverhead Books
- 416 pp.
- Reviewed by Courtney Angela Brkic
- June 3, 2013
A sister and brother, separated by extreme need, feel the repercussions of their family’s decision throughout their lives.
At the beginning of Khaled Hosseini’s third novel, And the Mountains Echoed, it is 1952 and an Afghan laborer is telling his son and daughter a bedtime story about a demon who steals children. He describes one particularly heartbroken man who eventually goes after the demon and discovers that his son has not met an unhappy end after all. Instead, the boy is furnished with “the finest food and clothes, with friendship and affection.” He is tutored, wants for nothing and will one day be given the option to leave. The demon tests the father’s love by offering him a choice: to take his son back to their impoverished village and the life of hardship that is sure to follow, or to leave the boy in his care. The rub is that if the father chooses the second option, he will never see his son again.
The children listening to the story do not realize that it foreshadows their own immediate fate, and a few days later Pari, the younger sister, is handed over to a wealthy, childless couple in Kabul, where she will eventually forget her village life and her adoring brother Abdullah. Their father, who barely makes ends meet and who has already lost one child to an early death, strikes this Faustian bargain so that “the finger is cut, to save the hand.” But it is a wound that never closes, dogging brother and sister through all the decades that follow. And while Afghanistan’s modern history provides some of the novel’s backdrop, Hosseini focuses primarily on the devilish decisions his characters are forced to make and their far-reaching consequences.
The siblings’ separation is at the heart of the novel’s intricate tapestry, linking not just Pari and Abdullah but also the book’s other characters: the children’s stepmother, Parwana, who hides a terrible secret; their Uncle Nabi, haunted at the end of his life by his role in Pari’s adoption; Pari’s new mother, a poet who is as talented as she is unhappy. Hosseini also examines, in great detail, the lives of more peripheral characters: a Greek plastic surgeon who treats Afghanistan’s wounded; a well-meaning Afghan expatriate who returns to his homeland and makes promises he will never keep; and a young boy who discovers his father’s corruption at a terrible price to himself. In less adept hands these subplots might have been distracting but it is to the author’s credit that he maintains narrative momentum in each chapter, and that his panoramic method of storytelling makes the book feel urgent, and whole, demonstrating the extent to which disparate lives can be deeply connected.
And the Mountains Echoed is as moving and thoughtful as Hosseini’s two previous novels, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. The scope is also similarly broad; in addition to Afghanistan, Hosseini dispatches his characters to Northern California, Paris and the Greek island of Tinos. He charts the struggles of multiple generations, contrasting the very different circumstances in which his characters find themselves. But his latest work is also a departure from those novels, and from his earlier tendency to draw a stark line between good and evil. And the Mountains Echoed occupies more nuanced and complicated space. With one minor exception, there is no villain who visits suffering upon the innocent. Rather, ordinary human foibles — pride, loneliness, pique — are responsible for derailing his characters’ fates.
Pari and Abdullah do find each other in the end, although it is not the reunion that anyone might expect. But while their meeting drives home the tragedy of all that is lost, it also propels the reader into a future that is ripe with possibility, and constantly unfolding.
Courtney Angela Brkic’s novel The First Rule of Swimming (Little, Brown & Co.) is out this month. She teaches in the MFA program at George Mason University.