21 December 2007

Not a word wasted. Ignore the hype. Read the book.

The Kite Runner
Khaled Hosseini
Riverhead Trade, 2004

I avoid reading New York Times Bestsellers because all too often they are a product of marketing strategies rather than literary talent. In this case, I received the book as a birthday gift from my mother, who'd had it recommended to her by a bookseller. What began as an exercise in dutiful reading for my mom quickly turned into one of those experiences in which I would not, nay could not, put the book down. It turns out that, in the case of this debut novel (by a medical doctor, no less), its status as a best-seller is well deserved. Certainly anyone interested in the history, politics, and life experience of contemporary Afghanistan needs to read this book, but it is also essential reading for those who need to have their vision purified and their hearts shattered (which is, I suspect, most of us).

If that last sentence seemed like an indulgence in hyperbole, then you need to read this book and find out for yourself. Hosseini's straight-ahead, unadorned prose does not seek to wow with its inventiveness; rather, it presents the naked, raw, agonizing experiences of growing up with a broken heart in a broken family in a breaking country. This novel is literature at its finest---turning the page, one might find bile rising in the throat, the pulse quickening, the temples throbbing, or the eyes welling with angry tears. Hosseini gives us hopelessness and redemption in equal measure, presenting but not reducing the totality of a life experience to marks of printer's ink on the page.

So what is the book about? To reduce this novel to a plot synopsis would be like describing lovemaking in purely mechanical terms, but for those who like those sorts of details, here is my stab at it. The narrator, Amir, is a young Afghan man of privilege, trying to win the love of his heroic father ("Babu") in the increasing political turmoil of Kabul of the 1970s. His cowardice is matched only by the bravery of his father and of his loyal servant (some would say best-friend), Hassan. The arc of their tragic, yet agonizingly redemptive, stories carries the reader across the Atlantic to Northern California, through the joys of marriage and the sorrows of loss, to a fateful showdown in Kabul at the turn of the millennium. The reader is privy to cultural and political aspects of Afghani life that Joe Six-pack only heard of in passing in the fall of 2001, as Afghanistan changed from obscure location "over there" to the first front in the "war on terror." And the children, my god, the children.

As I write this review, I am shaking and shaken from the experience of finishing the novel. I don't know if I will ever read it again, though my copy will definitely pass through many other hands. I also don't know that I will ever need to read it again---the images conjured by Hosseini won't fade for some time.

(This review was originally written on September 13, 2006.)

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