Reading And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini made me think of a small tree with tiny branches growing in different directions, twisting and turning until some of the branches come back to reconnect at the tips. Each chapter of the novel tells a different story, and sometimes they seem unconnected. As the novel progresses, however, the characters and chapters reveal how they affect each other as either prequels or sequels. And throughout this tangle of stories, Hosseini offers his customary vivid descriptions of life and culture in his native Afghanistan, a land of vast discrepancies between those who have and those who have not. Author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini doesn’t disappoint with his third novel.
Although all of the characters who inhabit the various stories of And the Mountains Echoed held my attention, the one who interested me most is Nabi, chauffeur and cook for Suleiman Wahdati at Wahdati’s mansion in Kabul. Nabi begins his employment at the mansion in 1947, the year he leaves his small village and goes to the city to seek his fortune. Once employed, he lives in a shack behind the mansion.
Nabi is proud of his work and content with his life until Wahdati marries Nila, the most beautiful woman Nabi has ever seen. The marriage seems unconventional with the two partners spending very little time together. Nabi plans his days as much as possible around opportunities to see Nila, and out of her loneliness she soon begins to have long talks with him. Before he can help himself, Nabi is in love with her. Because of his feelings for her, he is reluctant to take her to his village to meet his family when she asks him for a visit. He doesn’t want her to see the poverty into which he was born. But, also because of his feelings for her, he can’t deny her anything she wants and he takes her to the village.
At the meeting, Nila is captivated with Pari, the three-year-old stepdaughter of Nabi’s siser. On the ride home to Kabul, she confesses to Nabi that she wants a child more than anything in the world, but a previous surgery prevents her from ever conceiving. An idea begins to grow in Nabi’s mind. His sister and her husband are very poor. They can never give Pari the life Nila and Wahdati can give her. Nabi has it in his power to give Nila something no other man, not even her husband, can give her. And so the deal is arranged. Pari’s father needs money, and Nila wants a daughter.
As this part of Nabi’s story develops, it gives his side of the tale that opens the novel—the description of Pari, her father, and her brother Abdullah walking to Kabul to deliver Pari to Nila. As a reader you have to ask, how can a father sell his daughter? And how can an uncle arrange such a sale? Unfortunately, Hosseini doesn’t give us much insight into the father’s mind, but he tells us a great deal about Nabi, including his motivation, his guilt, his shame, and his redemption.
Hosseini also gives us an abundance of additional characters, each a branch on the twisting tree. Wahdati is interesting, a solitary artist who has a secret reason for hiring Nabi, a country boy who initially can’t drive or cook. Then there’s Pari’s brother, Abdullah, who loves his little sister profoundly and is devastated by her loss. A man named Markos eventually comes to own Wahdati’s mansion and becomes friends with Nabi. Thalia, a little girl badly disfigured by a dog bite, comes to live with Markos’ mother, Odelia, when the girl’s own mother abandons her. Nila gets her own story when she leaves Wahdati and takes Pari to live in Paris. The adult Pari also has a story to tell when she begins to learn about her birth family.
Each of the stories in And the Mountains Echoed reveals the strengths and weaknesses of a human soul. Together they form the strong tree that is the novel. Although I usually prefer novels set in landscapes and communities I’m familiar with, I never regret traveling with Hosseini to Afghanistan because he knows people so well. And when you know people at their core, you realize that in many ways we are all the same.