And the Mountains Echoed
First Edition: May 21, 2013
When I read Qais Akbar Omar’s harrowing yet touching memoir of growing up in war-torn Afghanistan, A Fort of Nine Towers, as well as his account of bringing the Bard to that Middle-Eastern country in Shakespeare in Kabul, I was struck by two very strong recurring themes: the incredibly strong ties of family, and the deeply embedded love of language through poetry and storytelling. While reading Khaled Hosseini‘s recent bestseller, And the Mountains Echoed, also set in Afghanistan, those themes again reverberated throughout, chapter after chapter, page after page. The bond between families and the almost unendurable pain when they are torn apart. The indelible sense of loss that follows, and the feeling of being incomplete, a feeling that never goes away. The stories behind each member of the family and of the family itself, giving each a voice even as they are bound together as a unit. The joy in sharing stories, and the way those stories share heritage, explain the unexplainable, ease pain.
Father was a closed-off man by nature. He rarely uttered more than two consecutive sentences at any time. But on occasion, for reasons unknown to Abdullah, something in Father unlocked and stories suddenly came spilling out. Sometimes he had Abdullah and Pari sit raptly before him, as Parwana banged pots in the kitchen, and told them stories his grandmother had passed on to him when he had been a boy, sending them off to lands populated by sultans and jinns and malevolent divs and wise dervishes. Other times, he made up stories. He made them up on the spot, his tales unmasking a capacity for imagination and dream that always surprised Abdullah. Father never felt more present to Abdullah, more vibrant, revealed, more truthful, than when he told his stories, as though the tales were pinholes into his opaque, inscrutable world.
No matter how dire the circumstances, there is always family. There are always stories.
And the Mountains Echoed is, at its heart, about a family: Abdullah, his younger sister Pari, their father Saboor and stepmother Parwana, and their uncle Nabi; and their relationships, both before they were a family, and after. The story begins in 1952, when the children are young (10 and 3, respectively), but it fritters around in time like a butterfly in a field of flowers, each bloom visited giving new insight.
Likewise, the voice in each chapter, each section, changes, at times from the point of view of someone outside the family: neighbors, friends, acquaintances; or by the extended family over time. Even the source material of the narrative changes; sometimes it is a story told, or the text of a letter, or transcript from a magazine article. Sometimes it is given as memory, or set solidly as unfolding in the here and now. The book concludes in 2010; by then new generation has emerged and new players have been established. Landscapes have expanded beyond Afghanistan to Paris, to Greece, to San Francisco. But even as other stories have opened, the first one finds closure.
Author Hosseini gives us characters that are just as defined by their homes and their experiences as they are by their personalities, but those experiences are almost always personal. He deftly sidesteps the political drama of Afghanistan and the specter of war; there is an acknowledgment of them, but no detours down those paths. Likewise, he is not caught up in terrains and couture and landmarks. He does not curtail description, but allows it to be instigated by what is happening in individual lives, rather than by a need to paint his readers a panoramic picture of places and events. Yet in doing this, he still manages to tell us so much.
In every corridor Parwana would see men’s eyes snapping to attention when Masooma passed by. She saw their efforts to behave matter-of-factly, but their gazes lingered, helpless to tear away. If Masooma glanced in their direction, they looked idiotically privileged. They imagined they had shared a moment with her. She interrupted conversations midsentence, smokers mid-drag. She was the trembler of knees, the spiller of teacups.
And due to the masterful storyteller that Hosseini is, we are effortlessly drawn the characters’ worlds by simple moments that are both fragile and stunning. The narrative story might span an entire novel, decades, generations, but smaller tales occur chapter by chapter. Even in paragraphs we are treated to amazing stories.
His days in Shadbagh were numbered, like Shuja’s. He knew this now. There was nothing left for him here. He had no home here. He would wait until winter passed and the spring thaw set in, and he would rise one morning before dawn and he would step out the door. He would choose a direction and he would begin to walk. He would walk as far from Shadbagh as his feet would take him. And if one day, trekking across some vast open field, despair should take hold of him, he would stop in his tracks and shut his eyes and he would think of the falcon feather Pari had found in the desert. He would picture the feather coming loose from the bird, up in the clouds, half a mile above the world, twirling and spinning in violent currents, hurled by gusts of blustering wind across miles and miles of desert and mountains , to finally land, of all places and against all odds, at the foot of that one boulder for his sister to find. It would strike him with wonder, then, and hope too, that such things happened. And though he would know better, he would take heart, and he would open his eyes, and walk.
This book has been at the top of bestseller lists since it arrived in May. Now, there are many reasons why a book may hit the top of the bestseller list; it could be the next big thing or the coolest new thing, it could tap into our hopes and our dreams and our hidden desires, it could be what everyone who’s anyone is talking about, or it could be a bandwagon large enough to carry anyone who wants to climb aboard. Or, it might hit the top of the charts due to buzz and a positive track record, but stay there because word of mouth whispers in supermarkets and book clubs and over dinner meetings and cups of lattes and macchiatos and on park benches and during bus commutes, that this title by this author is good. It’s a good read. It’s a good story. It feels like family, it feels like truth.
And that’s what As the Mountains Echoed is. A good read. A good story. And whether you are from Kabul, Afghanistan or Minneapolis, Minnesota, it feels like family. It feels like truth.