“Alas, Abdullah and Pari, Baba Ayub’s days of happiness came to an end. It happened one day that a div came to Maidan Sabz. As it approached the village from the direction of the mountains the earth shook with each of its footfalls. The villagers dropped their shovels and hoes and axes and scattered. They locked themselves in their home and huddled with one another. When the deafening sounds of the div’s footsteps stopped, the skies over Maidan Sabz darkened with its shadow.”
In a village in Afghanistan, not far from Kabul, Abdullah and Pari are growing up in a poor family. After their mother’s death, Abdullah has raised Pari, even though their father, Saboor, now has a new wife. Parwana has one living baby of her own to love, a dead child to grieve for, and little feeling to spare for her stepchildren. Then Parwana’s brother, Nabi, brings an offer from his wealthy employers, a childless couple from Kabul, to adopt Pari. Faced with the prospect of another disastrous winter like the one that killed Parwana’s first child, the family is forced to accept the offer, and deliver Pari into the care of Suleiman and Nila Wahdati. When Suleiman Wahdati suffers a stroke, Nila leaves him, taking Pari to live in France. With the family scattered across the world, there seems little hope that Pari and Abdullah will ever be reunited.
And The Mountains Echoed gets off to a supernatural start, opening with a fairy tale about a creature called a div, which reminded me of Helene Wecker’s The Golem and The Jinni. Of course, Hosseini is not a fantasy writer—though I would certainly love to see him try his hand at magic realism—and the story quickly returns to the more mundane tale of Pari and Abdullah. However, this myth hangs over the novel, and contextualizes it. Baba Ayub, who has lost his favourite son to the div, travels across the world to recover him, only to be faced with the question of whether or not his son is better off living in the div’s palace.
The theme of familial responsibility that begins with Abdullah’s unwavering love and duty towards Pari carries throughout the novel. Before marrying Saboor, Parwana must care for her paraplegic sister, Masooma. Masooma struggles with guilt for the burden she has placed on her sister, even as Parwana battles her own guilt and resentment towards Masooma. Nila tries and fails to fulfil her “wifely duty” by caring for Suleiman after his stroke, so that the task ultimately falls to Nabi. Abdullah’s daughter, named Pari after her long-lost aunt, must give up her dreams of art school to care for her sick mother, and then her father. In many cases, it is not the person who is expected to take up the duty who turns out to be the right person for the task. Nabi cares for Suleiman when Nila cannot, the relationship between master and servant outlasting the Wahdati’s doomed marriage not by years but by decades. Later, in the occupied Kabul of 2003, Nabi opens his home to Markos, a Greek plastic surgeon who has left his aging mother behind in Greece, in the care of his childhood friend, Thalia.
And The Mountains Echoed weaves together many modes to tell its story apart from straight narration. It opens with the aforementioned fairy tale, told by Saboor to Abdullah. Nabi tells his part of the story in a letter to Markos, which he asks in turn to be passed on to Pari, if she can be found. The enigmatic Nila Wahdati is only revealed after her death, in an interview with a French poetry magazine. The thread of the story changes hands many times, and the setting and period change just as quickly, from Afghanistan, to France, to Greece, to California, and from 1952 to the present. Some of the threads are not directly related to the separation of Abdullah and Pari, but they all drive towards Hosseini’s themes of family, duty, and heritage. Everyone is somehow connected to the family, even if it is as distantly as Adel, the son of a nouveau riche drug lord who is living in a gaudy “narco palace” built on the land where Pari and Abdullah grew up.
In conversation with Marcie Sillman (KUOW) at University Bookstore Seattle, Hosseini said he felt that And The Mountains Echoed was more complex than his earlier work. Certainly this is borne out in the depth of the characters; rereading The Kite Runner as I waited in the signing line, I was struck by how wholly repulsive Amir was, and how purely Hassan was portrayed like a martyr. The characters in And The Mountains Echoed still make hard decisions and live with the consequences, but they seem more fully fleshed, less easily identified as entirely good or bad. The storyline, too, follows more threads. According to Hosseini, the story began with just Abdullah and Pari, but instead of progressing in a straightforward manner as he expected, it branched out to include the many other people who were touched by the fallout of their separation.
Bittersweet and sometimes ungainly in its breadth, And The Mountains Echoed nevertheless captures the depth and complexity of family relationships and responsibilities.