Book review: Small goodnesses in spite of hardship

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 11, 2013

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Review

AND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED

Bloomsbury/Hardcover/404 pages/$38.41/Major bookstores/****1/2

Khaled Hosseini's third novel is perhaps his best, showcasing a writer who has moved beyond the one-trick story.

His first two novels, The Kite Runner (2003) and A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007), became famous as much for the relatively unusual Afghan setting as for the author's ability to create a tear- jerking narrative.

And The Mountains Echoed is painted on a larger canvas, telling human stories that just happen to be set in or around Afghanistan.

The problems of the country are not incidental but they take less prominence than before and they are both softened and thrown into stark relief by touches of myth and magic realism.

In the opening chapter, a father tells his young son and daughter the story of a poor man whose much-loved child is kidnapped by a mythical djinn.

The twist in the tale is the storyteller's own predicament - with three children to feed on a faltering plot of land, losing one might eventually bring more joy than sorrow.

The family is indeed broken apart and the young boy Abdullah is separated from his beloved sister Pari. Their relationship is the thread binding the rest of the chapters, which feature related characters as they live through the past 60 years of Afghanistan's history.

Hosseini displays a genius for character creation in this book that might surprise readers of his previous novels.

In a recent interview with London's Guardian newspaper, he admitted that the protagonist of The Kite Runner was "a lovely guy... but he's not complicated".

The inhabitants of And The Mountains Echoed are both complex and compelling, most notably the fictional Afghan poet Nila Wahdati.

A French-educated woman typical of progressive, educated Kabul society in the 1920s under Afghanistan's King Amanullah Khan, her flamboyant life and career stand in stark contrast to the women browbeaten under later regimes. Nila describes them as "diligent, sad women who are bent on a lifelong course of quiet servitude... turned into heroines for their hard lives, admired from a distance by those who couldn't bear even one day of walking in their shoes".

The author's struggles with his own identity as an Afghan-American are evident and underscored in another chapter featuring an American doctor, much like Hosseini once was. This doctor is outraged by the state of his birth country but unwilling to get his hands dirty solving the problems he bewails.

Yet of equal or greater prominence are the small goodnesses that endure in spite of years of hardship and trauma.

A poor man refuses to benefit from war and offers his house rent-free to aid workers. A childless woman takes an unwanted orphan under her wing, wrestling against all odds to give her adopted daughter all the benefits she never had.

Thankfully, happily ever after is still an ending the author believes in - and, more importantly, convinces the reader of it too.