Book Review: And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini.

Has someone ever asked you what your fear is? What was your answer? Well for me, after putting much thought into it, a major one is poverty, and the struggle it exposes you to – it blinds you and you miss out on so much in life, on exploring great opportunities, on pursuing your purpose, on hoping for success – because you focus so much on your daily survival. Living one day at a time and deliberating on what you’re going to do today that will help you see the next day, repeat. Its short term, rather than long-term. You can’t plan ahead because you don’t know how today will turn out. Isn’t that scary? And that alone pushes me. It pushes me to do the best that I can do with what I have, to ensure that my family never has to experience that. Reading about it already gives me so much grief. And coincidentally, there’s an excerpt from the book that captures this,

“You now, Mama, I worry for you too.”

“No need to. I take care of myself all right.” A flash of the defiant pride, like a dim glint in the fog.

“But for how long?”

“As long as I can.”

“And when you can’t, then what?” …

… “It’s a funny thing, Marcos, but people mostly have it backward. They think they live by what they want. But really what guides then is what they’re afraid of. What they don’t want.”

“I don’t follow, Mama.”

“Well, take you, for instance. Leaving here. The life you’ve made for yourself. You were afraid of being confined here. With me. You were afraid I would hold you back. Or take Thalia. She stayed because she didn’t want to be stared at anymore.”

When I started out on this book, I was of course expecting that Khaled will play with my emotions and tickle my tear buds like he always does. The last book of his I had read, A Thousand Splendid Suns, was one of those. It exhibited a lot of cultural and religious practices and he put into perspective the practices and how life was during the war in Afghanistan. He vividly describes the way of life and the role of women during that time and how they were treated, it’s just emotionally gripping.

And the Mountains Echoed, Khaled Hosseini

Well, this one is not any different on the emotional scale, though he takes the angle of abject poverty and struggle and what it does to you and your family. It all starts with Abdullah and Pari, and how their father, Saboor, struggles to fend for his family. His first wife died while giving birth to Pari, and he remarries Parwana (who wasn’t his first choice, but rather a replacement of his sister Masooma who had succumbed to an accident while the two played). However, she doesn’t fill the void the mother left for the children and this leaves the responsibility to Abdullah (who at 10 years would do anything for his sister, she’s his world) – like how he would sell his only pair of shoes to give her a feather for her treasured collection. Pari on the other hand brought him absolute happiness.

When their father sets off with them (Abdullah and Pari) across the dessert to Kabul in search of work, Abdullah is very protective of her sister and is determined not to be separated from her. And they are not aware what this fateful journey will bring them. It’s a turning point for each of them. It makes you realize the difference between those who have and those who don’t have. What it feels like to be faced with abject poverty, struggle and not having the freedom to make a choice, but rather just pick what life hands you. And when life deals you, it deals you real good – and that’s exactly happened to Sabbor, and by virtue of relation, his son, Abdullah.

Khaled narrates the story of separation and what it does to each character. For some, memories fade, and for others, they hold on to what connects them to the people that matter to them, the heartbreak, the hope and the despair. And in all this, life still moves on, even when for you it feels like it’s standing still. Others go into exile – to escape the war torn country or to escape the misery that life has brought them at home. And as they build their lives out there, as they find love and build friendships, that longing for something back at home still lingers on. And this is what forms the depth of his narrative, the bonds and the linkages.

I like that within the book he captures what depression does to someone through the life of Mrs. Nali Wadhati. How she was a well-known French poet, but regardless of the fame, the talent and the love around her, she still had an profound emptiness within her, which lead her into alcoholism and suicidal inclinations. And how no one else could lift that dark cloud off her, whether through her relationships with her daughter or with her lovers or her father, it was all up to her, and then it wasn’t.

He also captures the life of Thalia, she happens to be my favorite character in the book, her and her Auntie Odelia. The strength she exudes despite her physical disfigurement – her face was eaten by a dog when she was five while under the care of her drunk father. She used to wear a mask to hide the disfigurement for her mother’s pleasure, but once she left her to pursue her “acting career,” Odelia, her mother’s best friend finally sets her free. She tells her,

“Thalia, I want you to know that you don’t have to wear that thing in this house anymore. Not on my account. Nor his. Do it only if it suits you. I have no more to say about this business.

It was then that, with sudden clarity, I understood what Mama already had seen. That the mask had been for Madeline’s benefit. To save her embarrassment and shame. For a long time Thalia didn’t make a move or say a word. Then, slowly, her hands rose, and she untoed the bands at the back of her head. She lowered the mask. I looked at her directly in the face. I felt an involuntary urge to recoil, the way you would at a sudden loud noice. But I didn’t. I held my gaze. And I made it a point to not blink.

And when other kids in the Island get to know of her disfigurement, Odelia decides that they (Thalia, and her son, Marcos) would not be home-schooled anymore, but instead it was time to let her be seen as she was and she draws the rules of engagement with the other kids. Here’s how the scenario looked like,

“In the school yard, children parted to let us pass. I heard some girl scream. Mama, rolled through them like a bowling ball through pins, all but dragging Thalia behind her. She shoved and pushed her way to the corner of the yard, where there was a bench. She climbed the bench, helped Thalia up, and then blew her whistle three times. A hush fell over the yard.

“This is Thalia Gianakos,” Mama cried. “As of today…” She paused. “Whoever is crying, shut your mouth before I give you reason to. Now, as of today, Thalia is a student at this school. I expect all of you to treat her with decency and good manners. If I hear rumors of taunting, I will find you and I will make you sorry. You know I will. I have no more to say about this business.”

She climbed down from the bench and, holding Thalia’s hand, headed toward the classroom.

From that day forth, Thalia never again wore the mask, either in public or at home.”

After reading this bit, I felt like doing a slow clap for her, because that needed to be done for her to be able to just be. It takes a lot of guts to not be embarrassed of someone’s disfigurement, to push them not to put on a mask even when people are looking at them with disgust, and to publicly stand up for them when everyone else is ready to point at them and ridicule them. She’s what Thalia needed in her life at that time.

It was such an intense and moving read. The way he brings life to the characters and how each has their own story. The way he connects the dots, he’s really good at connecting those dots – he shows how 6 degrees of separation happens, and it’s so real. I would recommend the book to someone look for a good read.

My current read is The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. Everyone has been saying good things about it, and so I picked it up out of peer influence. I will tell you how that goes.

Happy Reading Snippers!

Signing Off ~~~ *Kawi*