My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Ten-year-old Abdullah and his beloved three-year-old sister Pari (“fairy” in Farsi) live with their father, stepmother and baby half-brother in the small village of Shadbagh. Their father, Saboor, takes manual work where he can find it and the family gets by living hand-to-mouth. In the autumn of 1952, with another infant on the way and a brutal winter in prospect, Saboor is desperate enough to arrive at a terrible decision. He must make a sacrifice to save the family. So it is, that one day Abdullah and Pari find themselves walking with their father across the desert to Kabul.
Only when they reach the house of a wealthy childless couple, where Uncle Nabi is employed as cook and chauffeur, does Abdullah realise with horror that he’s to lose the person most precious to him. Pari is to be adopted by Mr and Mrs Wahdati and he must never see her again.
At this point in the story, the average Hosseini fan might settle down to expect a satisfying tug-of-love story in which the unfortunate siblings undergo terrible suffering in their struggle to be together again, with the prospect of a happy, or at least happyish, ending. Such a reader will be surprised therefore, and initially a little resentful, when the narrative thread is cut short and the author takes off elsewhere. My advice would be to trust him.
Hosseini’s focus rests not so much in repairing Saboor’s action as in exploring the consequences of it and this involves us in a whole network of new characters and narratives that weave back and forth in time and place. First he dramatises the history of the siblings’ stepmother, who hides the terrible secret of a choice she too once made. Next, by method of a letter that’s read at his death in 2010, Uncle Nabi not only explains how it was for love of Mrs Wahdati that he brokered the adoption, but describes many of the events that ripple out from it.
Half-French Nila Wahdati is arguably the book’s most fascinating character, a sensual but emotionally damaged woman who wears Western clothes and make-up as well as writing sexually charged poetry. Kabul society regards her as beyond the Pale. After her husband suffers a debilitating stroke, she emigrates with Pari to France, where, later in the book, a new story unfurls.
While one is aware of the troubles of subsequent eras acting out in the background, this is not a novel about Afghan politics and the author has elsewhere said that he resists the expectation that he should “carry a banner” or “be a voice” for his homeland. His interests this time are the human and the personal. This said, in a section about two exiled cousins living a privileged life in America, who visit Kabul to reclaim their family home, he offers some nice asides about the condescending attitudes of some “tourist” returnees. In sharp contrast, Abdullah and Pari’s half-brother, Iqbal, returns after years of deprivation in a Pakistani compound, to find the family hut in Shadbagh has been flattened and built over by a drug baron.
Part of Hosseini’s effectiveness as a storyteller is the way he draws on universal signifiers of myth and symbol. In a prelude to the novel, Saboor tells his son a fable about a “div” or demon who forces a father to choose a child to give up to him, the implications only later clear to Abdullah. The author uses archetypes: the wicked stepmother, the master and the servant, the brothers (in this case cousins) who are friends yet rivals, but his skill is to put flesh on them, to make them real and individual. Though Pari quickly forgets her birth family, she’s haunted by snatches of an old folk song her brother used to sing. In Saboor’s fable, the div offers the bereft father the “gift” of forgetting his lost son and the father has to decide: is it better to remember, even though this means a life of pain? In mining such truths about human experience, Hosseini digs deep and brings up diamonds.