Love in a not so foreign land…

11:45 PM 31 MARCH 2017

Khaled Hosseini is a consummate story-teller and following the impact of his first novel – ‘The Kite Runner’ – his second was always likely to be awaited with bated breath. But, while there are plenty of examples of seminal music albums that have disappointing follow-ups, or movie sequels that never quite reach the highpoint of the original, in this book Hosseini cements his reputation as a genuinely gifted writer.

Once again set in Afghanistan, this story focuses on the respective journeys of two women – Mariam and Laila – and the dissection of the book into four parts helpfully describes their individual experiences, before interweaving their lives within the context of war-locked Kabul and a hinterland dominated by armed factions. Seen through the eyes of these women, this book also offers a powerful critique of a social structure, which layers disadvantage based on gender, wealth, religion, tribe, marriage,birth, language, disability, etc. The domestic violence, which they experience at the hands of their husband (Rasheed), is brutal and possible in the absence of protection for the vulnerable and a paternalistic culture which seems to regard women and children as chattels. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, the antidote to such systematic hardship proved to be the indomitable human spirit and the innate capacity for reciprocal love.

Almost in spite of the dire consequences of the soviet invasion and the transition to the equally destructive Taliban rule and its subsequent demise, the period covered by the book, Hosseini has managed to extricate a wonderfully uplifting tale of love in diverse forms. Positive and negative attachments to parents, the powerful but not universal instinct to protect children, as well as the strength of selfless romantic love, as distinct from pragmatic survival mechanisms, conjures up some challenging moral dilemmas for the reader. Moreover, the sisterly bonding of Mariam and Laila in an unspoken connection of damaged souls is arguably the most touching of all.

Amid the physical war damage and emotional carnage, the author nonetheless manages to eke out a testament to human resilience and deep-rooted optimism. However, it is the strength and resolve of the central female characters that offer most pride in the human virtues on show. My favourite quote from the book follows the mourning of Laila’s brothers, when the character perceives a hierarchy in her mother’s affections, “….Mammy’s heart was like a pallid beach where Laila’s footprints would forever wash away beneath the waves of sorrow that swelled and crashed.Swelled and crashed.” In the final analysis, Laila’s courage was every bit as worthy of her mother’s reverence.

On reflection, I believe one of the most engaging factors for the reader steeped in western culture is the apparent difference in certain values, most notably in respect of women (though notably feminists would argue there is still a way to go), but also, reassuringly, common humane principles that derive from the respective civilizations. The ‘otherness’ is a seductive curiosity, however, it should not be overstated, for as Hosseini demonstrates, our aspirations are remarkably similar.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Great Heights to Unnecessary Depths

11:31 PM 12 SEPTEMBER 2016

Any contemporary story set (even partly) in Afghanistan runs the risk of appearing bleak, at least to western eyes. However, in spite of a sobering glimpse of life under the talaiban, it is Hosseini’s examination of a series of overlapping relationships, which reveals the frailty of man and the attendant capacity for tragedy.

At the outset, the narrator, Amir, is aged just twelve and has a close relationship with Hassan, the son of his father’s servant. The characters are all subject to a social structure which ensures they know their respective places (Pashtun are the dominant tribe locally, while the Hassari are commonly regarded as inferior) but privately such boundaries are blurred. That is, until an incident witnessed by Amir challenges his ability to openly support his erstwhile friend. Amir and his ‘Baba’ are members of an elite class, but following the death of his mother, giving him birth, Amir grows up feeling distant from his father and desperate for his affection. However, he is no ‘chip off the old block’. Baba is charismatic and courageous, a stalwart of Afghan society and Amir’s sense of inadequacy is fuelled by the very positive attributes shown by Hassan and admired by his father.

Kite flying, we learn, is an important pastime in Kabul culture and offers an interesting metaphor for life in the differing strata, contrasting the fliers with those subject to gravity, scrabbling for victory among the ‘also rans’. Ironically, it is with Hassan’s encouragement and help, Amir is able to excel at flying and inspire pride in his father. In a touching show of loyalty, Hassan even seeks to run down the last defeated kite in a kite-battling festival, to seal a memorable triumph for his friend. Yet, the euphoria is short-lived.

In an impulsive and childish act, Amir deliberately sweeps Hassan aside, but in so doing unleashes a lifelong sense of personal guilt, magnified by the dignified self-sacrifice of his victim. In spite of everything, Hassan, by fluke of birth a member of the lowly Hassari tribe, demonstrates a superior magnanimity and notwithstanding the consequent prospect of destitution, stoically accepts the betrayal.

Fast forward, and the overthrow of the royal family by the forces of extreme Islam and with it the social order that has secured their privileged positions, sees Baba and Amir flee Afghanistan.

In the USA, notwithstanding their attendant poverty, Baba exhibits the drive to start again, though father and son are sustained by the cultural traditions preserved in the local Afghan community. Still, there is an inevitability in the need for Amir, the young man, to be confronted with circumstances in which he must return to his birthplace and seek to atone.

This book is clearly well written and offers an interesting insight into Afghan society , both home and abroad. However, there is also the troubling spectre of child abuse, which is explicitly referenced and to my mind, diminishes the narrative. Not because it challenges some taboo, but rather it adds little value to the story and gives the impression that it has been included for gratuitous shock impact. Moreover, in the context of the book, such behaviour only occurs on foreign soil and could be construed as symptomatic of an inferior society, which given western trials of recent years, seems more than a little hypocritical. I acknowledge it could be argued that this may be a courageous addition on the part of the author, but on balance, for me, it detracts from an otherwise compelling read.

Rating: 4 out of 5.