Amir is a young Afghan boy, born to a wealthy merchant father in 1960’s Kabul. And Afghanistan of the 60s and 70s has a haze of nostalgia to it – Amir lives a charmed childhood, flying kites, watching Hollywood Westerns, reading adventure stories to his best friend Hassan.
Of course, there’s a darkness simmering under the surface, as Afghanistan teeters on the brink of catastrophe – the monarchy falls, the Soviets invade – and, eventually, the tyrannical Taliban seize power. Within a few decades, nothing will be left; ‘the Afghanistan of our youth is long dead.’
But before all of this tragedy unfurls, Amir and Hassan are just kids. Hassan is the son of their household servant, and can’t attend school. Despite their close friendship and Amir’s objectively much better lot in life, Amir finds himself prickling with jealousy at his Baba’s fondness for Hassan. A complex figure, in equal parts imposing and charming, Amir longs for his father’s attention and approval. Since his mother died in childbirth, his father is the axis around which his life spins.
Hassan is Amir’s unwavering loyal and devoted friend, forever his companion in the kite competitions that are a popular pastime for children in the city. But as a Hazara, a member of a persecuted minority, Hassan has a target on his head – and it’s not long before a shocking act of violence will change all their lives forever.
Decades later, Amir and Baba are thousands of miles away from the country of their birth. Refugees in California, they struggle to rebuild a life. For Amir, the guilt, grief, and cowardice he feels over what took place that fateful summer in Kabul will plague him forever.
‘Long before the Roussi army marched into Afghanistan, long before villages were burned and schools destroyed… Kabul had become a city of ghosts for me. A city of harelipped ghosts.
America was different. America was a river, roaring along, unmindful of the past. I could wade into this river, let my sins drown to the bottom, let the waters carry me someplace far. Someplace with no ghosts, no memories, and no sins.’
It’s not very often that a novel makes me weep, but this did it. Hosseini is an incredibly gifted storyteller, weaving together a novel that not only encompasses swathes of political and social history, but tells an incredibly moving and intimate story of a life. He doesn’t spare us from horror – life under the Taliban is gut-wrenchingly terrible – but this is also not a book without joy, hope, and redemption.
Something that will stay with me for a long, long time is the contrast between the old Afghanistan of Amir and Hassan’s youth, and the war-torn failed state that it has been for many decades – longer than I’ve been alive. The way in which a country can cease to exist – the obliteration of a culture, way of life, societal structure – committing current and future generations to a life of poverty, desperation, and torment, is horrifying and powerfully rendered in this book. I think back to more recent parallels with what’s happened in countries like Syria – once thriving, developed centres of culture, history, and commerce – reduced to physical and psychological ruins.
The last thing I’ll say about this extraordinary and explosive book is that it is not an intimidating read. Hosseini’s prose is sparing, controlled – and even though he weaves Farsi words throughout, it’s not at all alienating to the reader. It took me a decade of having this sat on the shelf – it’s made it through several transatlantic trips with an unbroken spine – before I picked it up last week, and it might be the best book so far this year.
Read if you enjoyed: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee