Author: Khaled Hosseini
Publisher: Bloomsbury (2013)
Number of Pages: 402
How long it took me to read: 1 week
Where I bought this book: Eason & Company, Dublin
Like a Moth to a Flame
A small group of my friends started a book club about 12 years ago. We take turns selecting a book and meet in one another’s homes once a month to discuss books over wine. Having loved Husseini’s The Kite Runner, we were happy to select And the Mountains Echoed as our December 2013 reading choice.
I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:
5. “ ‘When you have lived as long as I have, the div replied, you find that cruelty and benevolence are but shades of the same color.’ ” (p.12)
4. “All her life Parwana had made sure to avoid standing in front of a mirror with her sister. It robbed her of hope to see her face beside Masooma’s, to see so plainly what she had been denied. But in public, every stranger’s eye was a mirror. There was no escape.” (p.64)
3. “ ‘Kabul is….[a] thousand tragedies per square mile.’ ” (p.163)
2. “ ‘I remember that when my parents fought they did not stop until a clear victor had been declared. It was their way of sealing off unpleasantness, to caulk it with a verdict, keep it from leaking into the normalcy of the next day. Not so with the Wahdatis. Their fights didn’t so much end, as dissipate, like a drop of ink in a bowl of water, with a residual taint that lingered.’ ” (p.90)
…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…
1. “ ‘…one is well served by a degree of both humility and charity when judging the inner workings of another person’s heart.’ ” (p.108)
Conversation with the Reader
While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:
“From the opening lines, I’m transported to a time when I both loved and dreaded my father’s bedtime stories. Like Saboor in And the Mountains Echoed, my father was a wonderful storyteller. But I wonder now how he could have imagined that Grimm’s tale of poor parents abandoning their children in deep woods was suitable bedtime listening for his small children who had just lost their mother. As a child, I lived in dread that we too, being poor, would suffer the same fate, and sought constant reassurance that my father would stick with us, no matter what. This, unfortunately, is not the case for poor Abdullah in the novel, whose beloved sister, Pari, is sold to a wealthy Kabul couple so that the family can sustain another harsh winter: ‘The finger cut off to save the hand.’ (p.48)”
“Bleak mid-winter is not, perhaps, the ideal time for reading this dark tale and reviving old ghosts, but my love (and dread) of a good story endures; the beauty of Husseini’s writing is compelling and his ability to tell a good yarn is spellbinding.”
“The author photo inside the back cover shows Khaled Hosseini as a handsome man (in this reviewer’s opinion), yet he writes movingly and authentically about how it must be for a plain or ugly woman with a beautiful twin. Since the ideal of ‘beauty’ and ‘attraction’ is relative and cultural, comparison is the norm for all women. Throughout one life, it is possible to go from being ‘invisible’ (i.e., not conforming to the ideal) to a period of ‘being noticed’ (i.e., looking great according to the ideal) and then, as our bodies age and change, we become, again, invisible. Reason tells us that, of course, beauty is skin deep and ephemeral, but our emotions are attracted by the aesthetic and we desire to be ‘attractive’ or easy on the eye, no matter what our age. The world can be a cruel place for a young, sensitive, Plain Jane with a beautiful friend or sister, because she’s invisible or los in a shadow everywhere she goes.
“There are myriad examples throughout literature associating beauty with goodness and virtue whilst the ‘baddie’ is typically ugly or doesn’t conform to the ‘ideal’ shape, size, or look. In this tale, the ugly sister, Parwana, commits two devastating crimes against her sister to remove her sibling as an obstacle to marrying her childhood love. She, thus, literally, becomes the wicked step-mother.”
“This story is filled with examples of ostensibly good people doing bad things, the consequences of which extend down the generations. It is so sensitively told, however, that I find myself wondering to what extent we, each of us, contain elements of good and bad. Notwithstanding her awful actions, Parwana is not entirely bad. Neither is her brother, Nabi, who initiated and facilitated the ‘sale’ of a child. He is loyal, loving, and caring and when war and terror come to Kabul, he feels justified in the knowledge that the child, now living in Paris, is out of danger.
“Can bad actions be justified if they deliver good ends? The answer, I believe, depends on who is defining ‘good ends.’ If the hand had a choice, would it agree to lose the finger? Is it better to grow up in dire poverty but surrounded by one’s family, than to be sent away to live in comfort, with opportunity for education and freedom?
“This moral dilemma is addressed in the new movie Philomena (nominated for BAFTA Best Film Jan 2014), which tells the story of an Irish mother’s search for her baby, who had been sent to America for adoption without her agreement. Since the launch of the movie, there’s been a lot of debate around here about the morality of the so-called ‘Christian’ nuns who demonized young pregnant women sent into their care, and the cruelty of the forced adoption ‘solution’ to unmarried pregnancy. Whilst the issue is heart-wrenching, I think we shouldn’t judge these events from a modern day perspective. It’s hard for us to imagine the stigma and automatic ostracizing of a family in these circumstances, at that time. Hindsight has 20:20 vision and I’m grateful I live in these times, rather than back then, although we undoubtedly have our own scotoma and prejudices.”
“Husseini has the remarkable ability to play the reader like a cello—drawing on the minutest detail to wrench the heart and suddenly, inexplicably, rushing ahead. Without too much elaboration and with some respite for the poor reader, Pari’s life has been lived in blissful ignorance about her roots; her disturbed ‘mother’ is now dead and she is alone; she has found and lost love, become a celebrated academic, had a family who are now reared and living their own lives. Perhaps because of my own obsession with loss and longing, I’m impatient to hear how her original family—specifically her adoring brother—coped without her and if (and how) they are re-united. I must curb my impatience whilst we are introduced to a new character, Dr. Markus, a plastic surgeon doing humanitarian work in Kabul, who is tasked with the job of locating Pari and bringing her the news about her real family.
“Through the remarkable story of Dr. Markus and how, and why, he became a plastic surgeon, I am once again confronted with the nature of beauty and physical appearance. They say, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover,’ but we continuously judge people by their appearance—passers-by, shop assistants, interviewees, etc. Those of us who fall short in the beauty stakes usually learn to compensate by developing killer personalities or ‘making the best of ourselves’ with make-overs, unguents and the like. I’m trying to remember the point in my life when I stopped comparing myself and fully accepted, warts and all, the body I was born with. It must, of course, have been the point when I felt truly loved by someone outside my immediate family. This is also the case for two unutterably sad victims of severe facial scarring whose stories dominate the latter part of the novel. I want to look away but Husseini is relentless and forces me to look and to confront all my past failed intentions to do some good, put myself out, or visit the sick or lonely. Most of all, I am brought face-to-face with my own hypocrisy.”
“The key insight from this reading is the reminder of the consequences of our every action. Most of all, however, I am reminded of the words of a very wise and compassionate man Dr. Ian Hart, psychologist heard at a seminar many years ago and whose words echo throughout the reading of this book: ‘Our lives are shaped by those who love us and those who refuse to love us.’ “