Upon hearing that Khaled Hosseini will be coming out with another book in May, I decided to go ahead and visit my local Half Price Books to obtain both The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. I didn't get in on the ground floor with Hosseini, but that is where I am going to start.
The Situation: The book begins in early 70s Afghanistan, where Amir lives with his father Baba, the family servant Ali, and Ali's son Hassan, who is also Amir's best friend. Amir and his father are Pashtun's and very well off in their hometown of Kabul. Amir's mother had died during childbirth, and Amir would continue to feel guilty for this as he seeks the approval of his father, Baba, who can be unwaveringly black and white about everything, and is often displeased, even disappointed, with how "soft" his son can be. Because of this, Amir continually seeks Baba's approval, and his greatest successful attempt comes when he wins the annual kite fighting tournament that takes place every year. Also, Hassan is the best kite runner in the neighborhood, and possibly even more important than being the last remaining kite in the sky is being the one who finds the second place kite after it has fallen to the ground and is able to take it home and put it on display. Hassan is successful, but that success comes at a price.
The Problem: There are several issues at play here. First, while Amir and his father are Pashtun, Ali and Hassan are Hazara, and are therefore looked down upon as the minority people group. Also, throughout the time span that the book covers, Afghanistan's monarchy will be done away with, the communist will take control, and ultimately, the Taliban will take over and establish Sharia Law. But even before any of that, Amir and Hassan must deal with a local sociopathic bully named Assef who has a penchant for using brass knuckles on the people he preys upon. Many times Amir and Hassan narrowly escape his brutality, but they can only luck out so many times before something happens. And when something finally does happen, it changes everyone's lives forever.
Genre, Themes, History: I have seen this book categorized as historical fiction, as it does cover a significant amount of time and deals with the tumultuous events that have made the country of Afghanistan what it is today. I only don't label it as such here because that history is so incredibly recent, and that conflict still rages on. It is the entrance of the Russians into the country that ultimately lead to Amir and his father leaving their home country for America. And when Amir goes back much later in life, he has to navigate around the Taliban in order to keep himself alive as well as a few others. And while neither Amir or his father are particularly religious, religion does come up often as a continuing theme as the daily Islamic prayers are mentioned, and even in America, Amir and his father follow Islamic customs when it comes to Amir's wedding. Another theme, at least for me, was sacrifice, and how much one person is willing to give for another, even if that person is willing to do the same. Finally, a theme that comes up consistently for Amir is guilt. It seems that no matter what, throughout his entire life, Amir finds something to feel incredibly guilty for and takes the blame onto himself, even if he is the only one who feels that way. He seeks redemption in doing a lot of what he does, viewing it as his way of paying for his past.
My Verdict: I was expecting to feel exhausted and a little beat up after reading this book, but that didn't happen. I wouldn't say that I feel refreshed and like a better person necessarily, but Hosseini is able to deliver harsh truths and cruel realities in a way that is very easy on the reader. I would say that he writes matter of factly, but it is even less jarring than that. Tough events are mentioned and talked about in detail, but I guess Hosseini doesn't dwell on them, and that is what makes them more bearable. He tells what happened, doesn't take any side, and moves on, leaving the reader to make their own conclusions. And for that, I am grateful. I imagine many people would shy away from this book because it is about Afghanistan and they just don't want to go there, but I can see why it became a New York Times Bestseller.
Favorite Moment: I enjoyed greatly the way Hosseini described the kite festival and the tournament. It wasn't the only beautiful moment in the book, but it was by far my favorite. I could be partial to this part because I had seen kite fighting and kite running during my time in Brazil and it was one of my favorite things to watch, but I do believe Hosseini paid special attention to this scene, even if only because it comes before probably the harshest incident in the entire novel.
Favorite Character: I may not have liked him at first, and he has his own issues, but I do believe that Baba, Amir's father, is my favorite character. He may be very black and white and incredibly difficult to deal with and to love, but ultimately, he is a father and a man and the kind of guy you want to have around during difficult times. He fights for the oppressed and helps out those less fortunate in an almost unreal way. There is a reason why many of the small business owners around Kabul cater his parties and offer him goods and services at no charge.
Recommended Reading: I am not even halfway through A Thousand Splendid Suns, so I will hold off recommending that one. So instead, I will go with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. Let me explain: when Amir is describing life under the Russian communists who have taken over, it reminded me of the descriptions Diaz gives of life under the awful dictator Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. Kind of crazy how location makes very little difference when it comes to fear and survival.