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“And The Mountains Echoed”

Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 7.12.45 AMWhen I saw this book labeled by more than one independent bookstore as the “best yet” of Khaled Hosseini’s fiction, I was tempted by the thirty-five dollar hardback. I came to my senses and recently finished the e-book. Let me tell you about this over-hyped, but fast and engrossing read. The story is told in clipped, broad strokes, covering multiple generations of multiple families in an expansive, light-handed style that places more emphasis on universalities about familial love than it does on any particular narrative. This “wide-angle” style is different from The Kite Runner. From one sentence to the next, a character’s story might jump forward several decades, or a relationship between two seemingly unconnected characters is established. These hare turns are engrossing, both in a superficial way — tracking the pieces of a puzzle — but also in a more symbolic way, mimicking the reality that life moves with a dramatic momentum that we rarely recognize in the moment. I found myself pondering the idea that we are each born into someone else’s story, inheriting the latest strand of a narrative that we presume to direct.

You Get The Gist

Book-ending the story are the characters, Pari and Abdullah. They are brother and sister living in a remote Afghani village in the 1950s. Their father, Saboor, is so burdened by poverty that he gives his daughter Pari to a wealthy, childless couple in Kabul, where his brother-in-law works as a chauffeur. This sets in motion a sort of chronic separation anxiety — this time it is a literal separation of brother and sister, but as additional characters are folded into the narrative, the term “separation anxiety” requires a broader, more liberal definition, more like a pervasive sense of loss — from the secrets of a Westernized, strong-willed mother, to the bittersweet desire of a young Greek doctor to leave his village, or the confusing fate of being the favored son of a corrupt Afghani official. Quick transitions from character to character, or from one character’s life stage to the next, dramatically reveal how these losses take shape, sometimes insidiously, obvious to the reader but unbeknownst to the characters, and sometimes with sudden onset.

A Book By Its Cover

The title, “And The Mountains Echoed” lends an appropriately cinematic tone to a panoramic novel, full of heartbreak. In his acknowledgements, Housseini attributes the title to a poem by William Blake, called “Nurse’s Song.” He uses the word “lovely” to describe it. The poem has an innocent and and sweeping feel that can be felt throughout the novel, despite the reoccurring theme of loss:

“WHEN the voices of children are heard on the green,
And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast,
And everything else is still.

‘Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
And the dews of night arise;
Come, come, leave off play, and let us away
Till the morning appears in the skies.’

‘No, no, let us play, for it is yet day,
And we cannot go to sleep;
Besides, in the sky the little birds fly,
And the birds are all cover’d with sheep.’

‘Well, well, go and play till the light fades away,
And then go home to bed.’
The little ones leapèd and shoutèd and laugh’d,
And all the hills echoed.”

Echoing That Sentiment

It’s an image of hopeful innocence, emphasizing the transience of human-generated conflict versus the permanence of land and history. Speaking of things that echo, this quote by John Muir from Herbert Smith’s biography sends a similar message about the world’s interconnectedness, continuity with the past, and inscrutability — except nature, not humankind, is his focus:

“When a page is written but once it may be easily read; but if it be written over and over with characters of every size and style, it soon becomes unreadable, although not a single confused meaningless mark or thought may occur among all the written characters to mar its perfection. Our limited powers are similarly perplexed and overtaxed in reading the inexhaustible pages of nature, for they are written over uncountable times, written in characters of every size and color, sentences composed of sentences, every part of a character a sentence. There is not a fragment in all nature, for every relative fragment of one thing is a full harmonious unit in itself. All together form the one grand palimpsest of the world” (42).

The most moving passages in And The Mountains Echoed show how characters are inevitably, intimately connected, with each other and with the past, but even so, they struggle to make sense of “one grand palimpsest of the world.”

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