My history with Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner is very similar to my history with The Life of Pi. It was released, Anita recommended it, and I avoided it like the plague because it was about boys becoming men in Afghanistan in the 1970’s and everyone was reading it. This book, however, I purchased shortly after it was released in paperback because my now-husband wanted to read it, rather than staring at it for ten years on the “buy two get one free” table and thinking about it, like I did with Life of Pi. So the husband read it, enjoyed it, and onto the shelf it went, to sit there, until a couple weeks ago when I finally read it for Anitober. And thinking about this book didn’t make me mad and there was no undercurrent of hidden meaning that made me feel stupid for not being able to figure it out (read my review of Life of Pi if you have no idea what the hell I’m talking about here).
For those of you who have not read The Kite Runner, or for those of you who read it when doing so was de rigueur and have since forgotten the major plot points, the gist of the story is that Amir is a child growing up in Kabul, Afghanistan in the seventies. His mother died in childbirth, leaving him with this father, who loves him, of course, but expects more of him than Amir is able to provide. They live with their two servants, Ali and his son Hassan. Hassan and Amir are master and servant, yes, but they are only a year apart in age, and as is mentioned often, nursed at the same breast which is a very strong bond for boys in Afghanistan. Amir’s father loves Ali and Hassan like family—Ali has been his servant for his whole life, and he has known Hassan since he was born. Amir resents that his father finds in Hassan qualities that Amir lacks—he is brave and strong and likes to play sports. Amir likes to read and write and is sickly.
The title of the book comes from the sport of kite fighting that was apparently quite popular in Afghanistan back in the old days. It sounds like an amazing sight to see. Hundreds of people fly kites and try to “cut” others kite strings. But the real excitement comes from the kite running—after the kites are cut loose, other people (all of this is usually children, by the way) run and try to catch the kites. Hassan is an exceptional kite runner. He just seemed to know how to chase them down and where they were going to end up. This sport was quite brutal: the kite line was something called tar, a string coated in a glass-glue mixture. “By the time the snow melted and the rains of spring swept in, every boy in Kabul bore telltale horizontal gashes on his fingers from a whole winter of fighting kites. I remember how my classmates and I used to huddle, compare our battle scars on the first day of school, but I didn’t mind. They were reminders of a beloved season that had once again passed too quickly (p. 50).” The sport was outlawed when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan.
The first part of the book contains much beauty. These pages are a love letter to an Afghanistan that no longer exists. This is one of my favorite passages: “I loved wintertime in Kabul. I loved it for the soft pattering of snow against my window at night, for the way fresh snow crunched under my black rubber boots, for the warmth of the cast-iron stove as the wind screeched through the yards, the streets. But mostly because, as the trees froze and ice sheathed the roads, the chill between Baba and me thawed a little. And the reason for that was the kites. Baba and I lived in the same house, but in different spheres of existence. Kites were the one paper-thin slice of intersection between those spheres (p. 49).” The descriptions of the Afghanistan Amir returns to in the latter part of the book are also vivid, but not in the least bit beautiful. “Rubble and beggars. Everywhere I looked, that was what I saw…. [T]hey squatted at every street corner, dressed in shredded burlap rags, mud-caked hands held out for a coin. And the beggars were mostly children now, thin and grim-faced, some no older than five or six. They sat in the laps of their burqua-clad mothers alongside gutters at busy street corners and chanted…. Hardly any of them sat with an adult male—the wars had made fathers a rare commodity in Afghanistan (p. 245).” There’s a very detailed paragraph describing a dead body in the street and another passage describing a particularly insane Talib stoning people buried up to their necks in a stadium to death as halftime entertainment at a soccer game.
Amir is kind of a little jerk when he is a kid. He takes a lot of his frustration at being a disappointment to his father out on Hassan. He just can’t help himself when he is mean to Hassan, who loves him like a brother. At the end of the first part, Amir wins a big kite fight and Hassan captures the last kite for him. Then, something happens. Amir spends the bulk of the first part of the novel hinting that something terrible happens to Hassan that changes him forever. This something is that Assef, some sort of sociopath who Amir goes to school with, decides to teach Hassan a lesson for a couple of prior events in which he, a lowly Hazzara, gets “uppity” with Assef, a Pashtun Afghani. The “lesson” is brutal and terrible and something I sort of wish I could unread. Amir witnesses this event, and in his guilt for not intervening and helping Hassan because he is afraid to get hurt, alienates Hassan and causes him and Ali to leave their life with Amir and his father.
Part two details Amir and Baba’s (Baba is “father” in Pashtun) life in the Bay Area after they flee Afghanistan. Amir’s father is revered in Kabul. In Fremont, he is a gas station worker who has trouble with English and a hard time adapting. It is Amir’s time to shine. He learns English, goes to school, meets a girl, and makes his father proud in a foreign land in ways he never could in their home. By the time Baba dies of cancer, he and Amir have come to love and appreciate each other. Amir and his wife, Soraya, are in love and generally quite happy in their life as a writer and teacher, respectively, but are unable to have a child. And so begins part three, which finds the prodigal son returning to Afghanistan at the behest of Rahim Khan, Baba’s best friend. To say that Rahim Khan gets Amir back to the Middle East under false pretenses is an understatement. Amir gets to Pakistan, where Rahim is in exile. He learns that his friend Hassan and his wife have been killed–martyred, really–leaving behind a wonderful son, Sohrab, who is in an orphanage in Kabul. Rahim had been living in Baba’s house in Kabul with Hassan and his family, so feels very close to this boy. Rahim begs Amir to return to Afghanistan and rescue Sohrab from the orphanage. Rahim would go himself, but he is dying and can’t make the trip. He reveals that he knows that Amir knows about the something that happened. And Hassan knew too. And then the big bombshell: Hassan and Amir are half brothers. SURPRISE?! Not really…. But I didn’t see it coming. Amir gets to Afghanistan, discovers that Sohrab is not in the orphanage, but is being held as a sex slave to a Taliban gentleman who ends up being…. Assef! SURPRISE?! Not really. But I didn’t see this twist coming either. Amir spirits Sohrab away, getting the tar beaten out of him first, which he seems to think is a long time in coming. He feels like it’s his penance for never standing up for Hassan back when they were children. He gets beaten half to death (the description of his injuries is very detailed—Hosseini is a doctor in his other life), but he feels gleeful about it. The story proceeds from here with minimal surprises. Sohrab comes home to America and Soraya and Amir adopt him. There are some roadblocks and difficulties, which I would have liked to have learned more about, but I get the feeling that may be another story for another day.
The story is filled with a lot of “surprise” plot twists. Devices like this bother me, especially when I get so wrapped up in the story that I don’t see them coming. Now in Life of Pi, there were true surprises. I mean, who expects a man-eating island to pop up in the middle of the ocean? That’s a plot twist no one sees coming. I read some goodreads.com reviews of The Kite Runner while I was in the midst of writing this post. Probably not a good idea. Those are some grade-A book snobs who post on there and I found myself being influenced by them while I was writing part of the post. Generally, I found The Kite Runner to be a wonderful story. Khaled Hosseini is not going to win a Nobel Prize, but he spins a fine yarn. There’s excellent plot, character development, and growth. The true value of this book lies in the picture of Afghanistan in peacetime, and the horrors of it in war. It’s certainly not garbage fiction.
Because this is a first person narrative, the only character we get to know extremely well is Amir. And Amir made me angry sometimes. He is a very well-drawn character with flaws and virtues and all that stuff that makes us human. I suspect much of Amir is a thinly disguised Hosseini. I hope there wasn’t a real Hassan and that all that happens to Hassan never happened to a real living person. It’s just all so awful. Hassan was almost too good to be true. I suppose he is a Christ-figure. Assef is a villain. There is no attempt made to get into his motivations and influences, which I found a bit disappointing. I’ve come to expect a more well-rounded bad guy. Soraya is also a bit two-dimensional—she is completely good and kind with no noted flaws. Baba is probably the most well-rounded character beside Amir. He is the one who gets the most page time, at any rate. Of course, prior to Amir’s return to Afghanistan, he only knows part of the story with his dad. Prior to going home, Baba is a hero figure to Amir: practically perfect. He is strong, wise, brave. When he leaves again, he knows his father is human and imperfect just like the rest of us. I don’t know if that is comforting to Amir or not. I do know that Amir leaves his homeland a changed man; with scars and bruises and finally a real grown up.
In working through this review I have come to terms with something about myself as a reader. Much as I like to read fancy award winning books and talk about symbolism and hidden meanings, I love a good story. The Kite Runner is a good story. It evokes emotional responses in readers. I admit I teared up a bit at the end when Amir begins to get through to Sohrab by flying kites at an Afghani picnic in the Bay Area. I know that Sohrab’s wounds are far from healed at the close, but lack of resolution of all plot points seems to be the way of things in fiction these days. I got the sense that things were going to work out for Amir and his little family. I’m glad to have finally read this book. Sometimes there is a reason for a book ending up a New York Times Bestseller: appealing to a wide audience is not necessarily the terrible thing that those goodreads.com book snobs make it out to be.