Khaled Hosseini’s third novel opens with an Afghan father telling his two children a fairytale about a giant who forces a villager to choose which of his children he shall sacrifice to the giant. Though he makes a choice, his guilt drives him to seek out the giant and take his revenge. When he finds the giant, however, and discovers his child is not only still alive, but living a life of luxury as the giant’s guest, he realises the consequences of his decisions are not so simply undone.
This becomes something of a recurring theme for And the Mountains Echoed, which follows various characters through the decades, from the 1950s to the modern day, from Afghanistan to Greece, California and Paris. Hosseini’s characters are all flawed human beings who discover the insidious complexities about their lives, inherent but perhaps hidden – or willfully ignored.
If The Kite Runner was about fathers and sons, and A Thousand Splendid Suns
was about mothers and daughters, then And the Mountains Echoed is about brothers, sisters, uncles and cousins. At the heart of the novel is the family that listens to the story in the first chapter, a family soon torn apart by a similar decision the father is forced to make. But some of the characters that pick up the baton as the novel progresses are strangers to them, though strangers who still have an important bearing on their story.
Hosseini pretty much avoids any mention of the Soviet invasion, civil war or the rise of the Taliban, which was probably advisable given that a third novel that directly depicts that era could end up looking like Taliban torture porn. Instead, Afghanistan’s dark age is all the more noticeable for its absence. Stories just stop, only to be picked up by another character decades later. For the first time Hosseini also depicts what life is like in post-Taliban Afghanistan, but he treats this no more simplistically than he does anything else in the novel. It’s not all good, of course, but it’s not all bad either.
Some might find it frustrating that there is no single character who appears throughout the entire novel to root it, and that Hosseini’s long chapters are sometimes beginnings without ends, or even middles without either beginnings or ends. Most of them have characters and plots that could have formed separate novels (the stand-out one being the story of Nabi, the chauffeur to a very unsuited middle class couple in Kabul), but they would have been completely different to this one. As it is, it’s necessary to Hosseini’s family portrait that these stories stay together, even if his characters don’t.
A Thousand Splendid Suns may have suffered in my estimation purely by comparison to The Kite Runner, which I knew nothing about before I started, but was recommending to anyone and everyone by the time I finished. Of course, it didn’t help that Hosseini used Brookside’s most notorious plotline for A Thousand Splendid Suns, changing nothing except for adding a stoning, even if as a naturalised American that shouldn’t really be held against him. And the Mountains Echoed is not as rewarding a read as The Kite Runner, but it is more ambitious, and more complex, and it will be interesting to see what Khaled Hosseini does next.