As And the Mountains Echoed opens, a father is telling his two children a bedtime story about a father who must sacrifice one child for the sake of the rest of the family. The next day, the father and two children begin a trek from their village, named Shadbagh, to Kabul, ostensibly because an uncle has found work for the father. But why would the father be taking his young daughter Pari (her brother Abdullah insisted on going along)? As it turns out, the daughter is being sold to a wealthy urban couple who cannot have children.
From this traumatic separation, the story branches backward and forward, from narrator to narrator, and from place to place, encompassing not only Shadbagh and Kabul, but Paris, the Greek isle of Tinos, and California as well. The children’s stepmother Parwana tells a chilling story of being the unattractive twin unable to capture Saboor’s attention because her sister is so much more beautiful and reacting in a way that damages her sister physically and herself emotionally. Their uncle Nabi, who arranged Pari’s sale, leaves a letter describing the couple who became her adopted parents (and for whom he worked); when the husband had a stroke, the wife decamped with Pari to Paris, where the letter eventually finds Pari years after her mother’s death. Brothers who lived in the village emigrated to the United States, where both experienced success; on a return visit to Afghanistan years later (with the goal of regaining family property), they encounter a badly injured child, whom one vows to help and the other actually does. In California, the two eat at an Afghan restaurant run by Abdullah and his wife, who now have a daughter named Pari. Abdullah and Pari’s half-brother Iqbal returns to Shadbagh from a refugee camp but is brutally treated by a drug lord who has taken over the region. Meanwhile, in California, the second generation Pari is caring for her father, who suffers from dementia.
This description may sound confusing—and I am only suggesting the complexity, rather than truly representing it; occasionally it takes a while to figure out who exactly is narrating a section and what their relationship is to the central story. While some of the relationships are tangential, each narrator adds to the novel’s depth and furthers, in some way, Hosseini’s exploration of his themes of family, what it means to love/give care, and how people come to understand who they are as members of families and cultures, within the geographic region that spawned the culture or outside of it, in the diaspora.
And The Mountains Echoed is by far my favorite of Hosseini’s three novels. Although, like its predecessors, it provides insights into horrors the Afghan people have faced over the past decades, the narrative is less violent and more hopeful in its portrayal of people whose love for family (however defined) sustains them. Although I had trouble “getting into” the book, it started to pick up around page 50 and I greatly enjoyed the rest.
Abdullah could not picture that Father had once swung on a swing. He could not imagine that Father had once been a boy, like him. A boy. Carefree, light on his feet. Running headlong into the open fields with his playmates. Father, whose hands were scarred, whose face was crosshatched with deep lines of weariness. Father, who might as well have been born with shovel in hand and mud under his nails.
It was in the tender, slightly panicky way he spoke these words that I knew my father was a wounded person, that his love for me was as true, vast, and permanent as the sky, and that it would always bear down upon me. It was the kind of love that, sooner or later, cornered you into a choice: either you tore free or you stayed and withstood its rigor even as it squeezed you into something smaller than yourself.
[Interestingly, the first quote is Abdullah thinking about his father Saboor, the second Pari thinking about her father Abdullah.]