Sweeping saga of Afghan lives with hints of magic realism
Sophie Gorman on the new novel by the author of the international bestseller 'The Kite Runner'
It is 1952, on the outskirts of a remote village in Afghanistan, a father is telling his two young children an usual bedtime story, a story about a man being forced to give up his youngest child to the div – a devil creature – to save everyone else in his village. It is a terrifying tale of morals and decisions, an ancient story that will soon come to have huge significance for this small family as they travel to the city of Kabul the next morning.
The children think they are going to visit their Uncle Nabi, a holiday to see the expensive house where he works as a chauffeur. The actuality is instead devastatingly brutal for 10-year-old Abdullah and his beloved three-year-old sister Pari.
This is just the beginning of the latest epic tale to sweep across generations and lands from Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns.
In this new work, Hosseini uses similar narrative structure to that employed in A Thousand Splendid Suns, the baton of perspective being passed along a series of central characters, the chronology fragmented. And, as with all his writing, he merges realism with magic realism, his optimism seeping through even the grimmest of his stories.
One of the key connecting threads is the opulent house in Kabul that the children arrive at, the house that survives civil war, the Taliban era and is then finally occupied by NGOs after the millennium. Hosseini's history is selective, it is his story to tell, and there is no mention of the Soviet occupation in 1979.
And the narrative does also race at times, its pace tumultuous as it jumps decades in a paragraph, most notably in the story of adult Pari where the haste is such it leaves you breathless.
There is at least one too many lives expanded on; a chapter set in Greece one coincidence and overlap too many, and it would have been better to fully investigate and expand on the lives we've already encountered rather than take us to an entirely new world with little connection to the much more interesting Afghan thread.
Hosseini may have lived in America since he was 15, but his connection with his native Afghanistan is unbreakable, his need to celebrate this land and its people driving through all his writing.
His allegorical style has earned him huge numbers of admirers, his ability to weave the myths of the past into the lives of today, as if everything is fated, that we are all living out different roles from the essence of these ancient tales.
But in this new novel his hand is heavier, his parallels laboured and somehow lacking conviction. The end result feels as if the integrity of his stories has been watered down to reach a wider audience.
Sophie Gorman is Day & Night Magazine Editor and Arts Editor