Nuance is rare on the bestseller list. In most cases, ambiguity is stripped away to appeal to the greatest number and lowest common denominator. So it always renews my faith when a popular novelist shows a decided preference for moral complexity. It suggests that readers crave more than simplistic escape. Or perhaps it just means that some writers, like Khaled Hosseini, know how to whisk rough moral fiber into something exquisite.
Hosseini’s first two novels, “The Kite Runner” (2003) and “A Thousand Splendid Suns” (2007), spent a combined total of 171 weeks on the bestseller list. He knows how to please a crowd. In his case, the secret ingredient might be intense emotion. I’m not an easy touch when it comes to novels, but Hosseini’s new book, “And the Mountains Echoed,” had tears dropping from my eyes by Page 45.
The killer scene is set in Kabul in 1952, in a home so heavy with fruit trees and privilege that when 10-year-old Abdullah crosses its threshold, he feels as if he has entered a palace. Abdullah is the son of a broke day laborer; his mother died giving birth to his sister, Pari. The previous winter, the cold seeped into his family’s shack and froze his 2-week-old stepbrother to death. Now his father has walked Abdullah and Pari across miles of desert, from their tiny village to the great city of Kabul, in hopes that one brutal act — a bargain with two rich devils — will save their family from the next ruthless winter. Later, Abdullah will think back on that terrible afternoon and remember a line from one of his father’s bedtime stories: “A finger had to be cut, to save the hand.”
Fingers are sliced off in almost every chapter of Hosseini’s novel. Again and again, his characters face a test of love: Will they sacrifice their dearest for a better life, or will they remain loyal at the cost of their own happiness? In every case, someone’s getting damaged. “When you have lived as long as I have,” one character says, “you find that cruelty and benevolence are but shades of the same color.”
Like Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” Hosseini’s novel is built as a series of tales, each told in a different style from a different point of view. Chapter 3, for example, takes place in 1949, when Abdullah’s plain stepmother falls in love with the same man as does her gorgeous twin sister. Chapter 7 happens in 2009, when the son of a former mujahideen realizes that his father’s mansion is his mother’s prison.
In less skillful hands, this structure might seem more like a compilation of short stories than a novel. But Hosseini carefully divvies up details about the circumstances preceding and following Abdullah and Pari’s fateful afternoon, giving the book a satisfying sense of momentum and consequence.
One of my favorite chapters revolves around a doctor who, like Hosseini, is born in Afghanistan and educated in California. In 2003, the doctor visits Kabul with his cousin, a sexy used-car salesman. Soon after he arrives, he sees a young girl who was mutilated by a relative during a land dispute. Uneasy with his cousin and uncomfortable in war-ravaged Kabul (his money makes him the target of beggars), the doctor begins visiting the girl in the hospital. Soon, she’s calling him “Uncle” and he’s promising to bring her to America. The day before he leaves Kabul, he tells her nurse, “The operation she needs? I want to make it happen.”
Then Hosseini twists the screw. On the first day home, he’s disgusted by his profligacy: “For the price of that home theater we could have built a school in Afghanistan.” But the doctor’s humanitarian infatuation wears off. A month later, he’s snug in his wealth again: “Everything he owns he has earned. . . . Why should he feel badly?” By the end of the chapter, not only has Hosseini complicated our ideas about generosity, he’s also poured acid over the doctor’s cozy justifications and revealed the fierce intelligence inside the wounded girl.
It’s those kinds of twists that made me lie to friends and family to spend more time devouring Hosseini’s book. Over and over again, he takes complicated characters and roasts them slowly, forcing us to revise our judgments about them and to recognize the good in the bad and vice versa.
Take, for example, the glamorous Afghan named Nila Wahdati. In Chapter 2, she’s one of the greedy devils who break Abdullah’s happiness. In Chapter 4, we learn she’s also a tragic, avant-garde poet and a devoted mother. In Chapter 6, she appears as an aging, alcoholic narcissist. Is Nila a good person? She’s a real woman, made of anger, hope, vanity, tenderness, ambition and sorrow. You can love her and hate her at the same time.
It’s hard to do justice to a novel this rich in a short review. There are a dozen things I still want to say — about the rhyming pairs of characters, the echoing situations, the varied takes on honesty, loneliness, beauty and poverty, the transformation of emotions into physical ailments. Instead, I’ll just add this: Send Hosseini up the bestseller list again.
Khaled Hosseini’s appearance Thursday at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue is sold out.
AND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED
Riverhead. 404 pp. $28.95