When I ranted a few weeks ago against Gods without Men and against the use of multiple points of view in general, part of my touchiness had to do with the fact that at the time I was reading And the Mountains Echoed. This book starts off so good. The first chapter is a story told by his father to his children, Pari and Abdullah. The story is about a child who is kidnapped by a Krampus-like evil spirit called a div. The div steals the child in an especially cruel way: he insists that her father choose which of his five children to sacrifice. If he refuses to choose, the div will kill all of his children. After agonizing about the decision, the man decides to put the matter to chance and choose a child’s name through a random drawing. The child whose name he chooses is his youngest son, his favorite. He follows through on his decision, but he is devastated afterwards and his grief does not fade with time. Finally the man goes to the div’s fort – a long, tortuous walk from his village – intending to kill the div and reclaim his son. Instead of fighting him, the div offers him a chance to look out of a window where children are playing happily. The man spots his son. The div tells the man that his seizure of the child was “a test of [the man’s] love.” The div goes on to say, “It was a harsh challenge, I recognize, and its heavy toll upon you does not escape me. But you passed. This is your reward. And his” (10). The div goes on to describe the excellent education the son is receiving, the plentiful food he’s eating, and the choices he will have when he grows up and is ready to choose a career. The man initially tells the div that he wants to take his child home – excellent life or no excellent life at the div’s fort. The div does say that the man is allowed this choice, but if he chooses to take his son home, the son will never be allowed to return to his privileged life at the div’s castle. “You are a good father” (12), the div says when the man turns around to go home, without the child.
In chapter two, it becomes clear that Saboor – the man who told the story to his children – was on the way to “sell” his young daughter, Pari. The circumstances are complicated but have to do with the family’s poverty. Abdullah and Pari’s mother has died, and Saboor has married a second wife, Parwana, whose first baby died of cold the previous winter. Saboor and Parwana are desperate to make sure this does not happen again. Parwana’s brother Nabi is a servant to a wealthy, childless family in Kabul, and he arranges to sell Pari to that family in exchange for money for food and firewood and some kind of basic insulation for their house. Saboor’s struggle is like the struggle of the man in the story: he knows that his daughter will have a better life, but the fact that this life comes at the cost of abandoning her is devastating, both for Saboor and for Abdullah.
After these two chapters, I was hooked. But then we flash back in time to Parwana’s childhood: more poverty, plus a crippled sister. Then in chapter four, Nabi the child-selling middleman is elderly, and the whole chapter takes the form of a tell-all letter to someone named Markos. Then we meet an eastern European nurse who is caring for an Afghan girl with a terrible injury, who reaches out to two Afghan-American cousins who have made it big in Silicon Valley and have come to Kabul to sell their family’s property. And so on. Even in the last hundred pages of the book, we are still meeting new characters, and the book’s central purpose seems to be one long game of “let’s figure out how this person is connected to the main story.” There are books out there whose authors make this gimmick work (The Hours comes to mind, and there are others), and of course there are plenty of examples of excellent novels that use shifting point of view without creating the sense that the novel’s primary purpose is to be some kind of narrative Sudoku puzzle that comes with a Happy Meal at McDonalds. A novel is supposed to be driven forward by narrative. This is such a simple idea that I am almost embarrassed to take the time to say it – though as someone who writes fiction I do know that following a narrative as a writer is harder than it sounds. I remember what it felt like to be bogged down in backstory, and I still struggle with the “middle” of every piece of fiction I write. But Hosseini is a big boy, and he should have figured these matters out by now.
I would have happily read the story of Abdullah, Pari, and Saboor and the aftermath of Saboor’s decision to sell Pari, and if Hosseini had rotated among these three points of view while still moving the story forward, that would have been fine. I would have been similarly fine with a well-executed omniscient point of view, after a model like Anna Karenina. But as it stands, this book is more of a scrapbook than a novel. In each chapter we read about another set of characters who are somehow connected to Saboor’s family, and/or to the rich family that Nabi worked for, the family that adopted and raised Pari. I know that sometimes authors see the shifting point of view as a philosophical statement – something along the line of “everything connects.” Again, I think that when this technique is done well, that statement might emerge from the text (the classic novel that insists that we mull over the motif of connection is Howards End, which can be a bit stodgy sometimes but which ultimately I admire), but in the case of And the Mountains Echoed it doesn’t matter if everything connects. If I’m not invested in the characters, and if I’m annoyed because the characters I did feel invested in have disappeared, who cares if everything connects?
I also know that part of Hosseini’s purpose is to share the stories of Afghanistan with a Western audience, and I support that mission. Hosseini’s foundation has done good work in Afghanistan, largely using the proceeds from The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns (both of which I liked). This would be a very different review if Postcards from Purgatory were a blog about social justice, about global humanitarian crises, or about the impact of the U.S./Coalition presence in Afghanistan between 2001 and the present. But that’s not who we are. We’re a book blog, and I’m here to tell you that this novel isn’t great. But if Khaled Hosseini were to ask me for a donation for his foundation, I would give.
P.S. For more thoughts on books that don’t live up to their initial chapters, stay tuned for my review of Orson Scott Card’s Magic Street.