Friday, January 24, 2014

review: and the mountains echoed

Coming out of the holiday season I quite happily found myself with a pile of books to read through over the coming weeks. This isn't unusual, traditionally books are the easy gift for me because I'm notoriously fussy and one of those dreaded hard-to-buy-for people. In addition to a small pile of gifted books, the brother and I also swapped a number of books and I just may be eyeing up the book I gave to Bunny for my reading pleasure as well.

I've been slowly working my way through the books, snatching a few spare moments here and there to read through a chapter. Contrary to popular assumptions, I don't only read science fiction and fantasy, though it is the majority of my easy reading. I like serious fiction as well, when I have the mental energy to really actively engage with a book instead of simply being entertained. One contemporary author who does serious fiction exceptionally well is Khaled Hosseini. It was Bunny who started me reading his work, but once I'd launched in I was hooked. So when I heard this year that he would be releasing a new book it quickly went to the top of my Christmas list, and lucky me, I have a brother who delivers.

And The Mountains Echoed is one of those breathtaking works of fiction that sweeps you up into the story and pulls you right along with it. I'm a little at a loss as to how to describe this book, a multi-generational tale that shows how just one action can ripple across the lives of everyone involved, even those who are only tangentially related to the story. Starting in a small town in Afghanistan, the plot stretches across to reach Europe, stopping in both France and Greece before taking us across the ocean to the United States.

The plot of the novel is wonderful, the story at turns heartbreaking and exciting, but plot is not what made this a standout to me. Hosseini's writing style is amazingly engaging, with prose bordering on poetry at points. Even better, his understanding of the human condition is profound and he managed to write characters that come to life right on the page. Ambitious, sad, flawed, real characters who you could easily imagine passing on the street, or in your doctor's office or anywhere. Real flaws, flaws like ambitions and promises exceeding their ability to follow through, flaws like parents who try to fill a gaping need within themselves with their children and the messiness that ensues, like letting fear of failure become its own crippling disease. The third person narrative allows us to see as much about the internal motivations as the external actions and how the two can at times contrast so terribly.

This is one of those books that forced me to sit up and critically engage. Where I would read a chapter and then go back and re-read an earlier portion to see how they related to each other. I was tempted to get out my highlighter and mark passages to come back to, I did grab a pen and notebook and took down quotes and made notes. I swear I'm ready for a seminar or a book club meeting on this, though I have neither.

Some excerpts:

"Talking about Afghanistan - and his is astonished at how quickly and imperceptibly this has happened - suddenly feels like discussing a recently watched, emotionally drenching film whose effects are beginning to wane." p 167

"... for the rest of her life it would slam into her at random moments, the guilt, the terrible remorse, catching her off guard, and that she would ache to the bones with it. She would wrestle with this, now and for all days to come. It would be the dripping faucet at the back of her mind." p 217

"What was I supposed to be, growing in your womb - assuming it was even in yoru womb that I was conceived? A seed of hope? A ticket purchased to ferry you from the dark? A patch for that hole you carried in your heart? If so, then I wasn't enough. I wasn't nearly enough." p 221

" 'When they entered the kill zone,' Baba Jan said, one hand absently stroking Adel's hair, 'I opened fire. We hit the lead vehicle, then a few jeeps. I thought they would back out or try to plow through. But the sons of whores stopped, dismounted and engaged us in gunfire. Can you believe it?' " p 271

"He would learn to love him again even if now it was a different, more complicated, messier business." p 276

"I learned that the world didn't see the inside of you, that it didn't care a whit about the hopes and dreams, and sorrows, that lay masked by skin and bones. It was as simple, as absurd and cruel as that." p 329

Even without context, it seems impossible not to recognize the human condition in those quotes. The failings, flaws, fears. Which isn't to say the book doesn't have joyful moments, because it does, but what Hosseini captures so perfectly is that messy and complicated nature of a person wearied by the world.

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