Hosseini fails to reach his own dazzling standards
And The Mountains
The difficulties of writing a first novel are well documented. Those of writing a second possibly even more so. There's less sympathy for the author embarking on his third foray into fiction, though in many ways the problems can be even more acute.
First novels sail along on youthful brilliance; second novels, tricky as they are, either cement or tarnish that hard-won reputation. By the time the third novel is due, readers can have high expectations of what they are about to receive, and the author is expected both to meet them, and to provide some new variation on familiar pleasures.
Few have more expectations than Khaled Hosseini, who sold over 30m copies of his first two heartbreaking, compelling books, which may explain why this one has been so long in the making. The Kite Runner was published in 2003, and A Thousand Splendid Suns in 2007. His new book has been six years in the making. Was it worth the wait?
Hosseini certainly doesn't hang around: "You want a story and I will tell you one." This ancient storytelling urge has been the key to his success, and here it is celebrated again, as a father in 1950s Afghan-istan sits down to spin a bedtime yarn for his two young children, Abdullah and Pari, about a jinn who comes down from the mountains to steal children.
Next day, the siblings set out on a journey to Kabul. The separation of the brother and sister, who love one another dearly, and the impetus towards their eventual reunion, is the thread that runs through this book.
Hosseini's themes remain much the same as before. Family. Identity, both personal and national. The clash between old and new; secular and sacred; between those who stay and those who go away. Afghanistan remains richly detailed, the dusty harshness of the landscape described as viscerally and vividly as ever.
In many ways, this book is even more ambitious than its predecessors. The Kite Runner was about fathers and sons. Hosseini's second perhaps more to do with the experience of mothers and daughters. This one is purposefully a multi-generational saga, spanning decades and continents and drawing in a huge cast of characters, almost like a soap opera, with all the detours into subplot that this implies. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that. The only problem is that, in a narrative with so many strands, not all of them can be equally compelling, and not all the characters can command the same loyalty from the reader.
When it works, the effects are beautiful and brilliant as ever, but here they're so diluted that it falters as much as it triumphs, and there's too little of the characters that you do care about and too much of the characters that you don't.
In a way, it feels less real, more fictionalised, than those earlier books. They had the rawness of autobiography. Here the shaping, often clumsy, hand of the maker is much more evident.
The intrusion of so many elements from traditional fairy tales rubs the edges off reality so there's not the same authentic connection to the lives being described. The characters feel as if they were created at a writer's desk rather than organically forged from experience. Their emotions are too pat. The resolutions too corny.
There are still passages of great beauty and emotional intensity, but they're isolated moments that never add up to the same satisfying, encompassing experience as before.
A disappointment then, but only by the dizzyingly high standards which Khaled Hosseini set himself in his earlier work.