Families: circumstances splinter them. People find substitutes for blood-kin, sometimes in greed, sometimes as the most profound kindness, and those ties become the locus of life. Khaled Hosseini's third best-selling novel, And the Mountains Echoed, is not just about Afghanistan, from mid-century to a few years ago - principally it is about people who lose, steal, or invent families, and how the emptiness of losing and the hunger of creating them, govern people.
A boy and his little sister are parted when she is adopted by a wealthy childless couple in Kabul, a flirtatious poet and her quiet artistic husband. The girl doesn't know the caretaker is her uncle, who keeps an eye on her. In Afghanistan's war-splintered society, those who can afford to, leave: the woman takes the girl to Paris; neighborhood brothers go from Kabul to California. A different sort come to stay: a Greek plastic surgeon whose mother has taken in the disfigured daughter of her closest childhood friend; a Bosnian nurse. And opportunists and profiteers flourish in the chaos.
In each case, the richness or vacancy of their lives emanates from the bonds they make, of family and friendship. Hosseini walks us artfully through his characters' stories - he incrementally reveals the love between the Greek and the disfigured girl who's come to live with him and his mother, while counting down the two minutes of a homemade camera's exposure.
This male author has given us some strong women: the poet who scandalizes Kabul society with her amours, her erotic poetry, and her wild parties; the girl who later looks after this poet she has come to realize is not her mother, and who becomes a mathematician and professor; the Greek's mother, who fears no one and says what she believes, convinced it is better to hurt people with the truth than with lies; the disfigured girl she takes in, whose mechanical aptitude provides the strength with which she approaches the world; an Afghani girl, victim of a jealous uncle's axe attack, who after treatment by the Greek surgeon and his Bosnian nurse, writes a book in which she omits her disappointment in the Afghani emigrant who longed - for his own peace of mind - to "save" her, but in the end would not disrupt his American life with her presence. And the daughter of the original brother, who sets aside her own dreams and ambitions to care first for her cancer-stricken mother, then for her father as he sinks into dementia.
Hosseini draws a big circle, traversing time and place, composed of the smaller circles of individual lives. He shows us that violence and redemption are personal, states of mind as much as the havoc wrought by war. The village from which the boy and girl travel as the book begins, experiences in microcosm what has happened to the whole country: in a mad fit, the girl's bereft father cuts down the ancient tree at its center, and by the end every house has been razed. The residents of the new town nearby that assumes its name display the materialism and vapidity of people without roots, ruled over by a profiteer who controls them with patronage while he lives in luxury in a walled and guarded compound.
It is no wonder, in the face of the relentless misery and horror of the Afghanistan we encounter in the news, that readers are drawn to Hosseini's books. He writes:
A spectacularly foolish and baseless faith, against enormous odds, that a world you do not control will not take from you the one thing you cannot bear to lose.
He says: of course war and injustice are terrible. But look more closely: love and kinship give people strength. This person struggles, and her story makes you ache - but another can make you smile.