We’re all generally confident that decisions made when we’re young influence who we will become, but do choices made by our grandparents and great-grandparents also play a role in how we see ourselves? Can decisions made by the parents of a three-year-old in Afghanistan in the 1950s affect the identity of a child growing up in California generations later?
Readers of Khaled Hosseini’s previous two novels The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns know that his writing is often informed by struggles with loss and identity. In his third, And the Mountains Echoed, these themes quicken, resonating across distance and time to affect generations.
The book opens with a fable about an impoverished family forced to sacrifice one of their children to a giant. Unable to bear his grief, the father travels into the mountains to confront the giant. There he sees his child from a distance–healthy and happy, playing with others in a beautiful garden. The father cannot bring himself to take his child back to the misery in which the family lives. He drinks the giant’s magic potion to allow himself to forget his child forever and returns to his village alone.
The fable is a bedtime story told to a young brother and sister by their father who will take them on a journey the next day. Not knowing what lies ahead, they will travel with him through the mountains of Afghanistan to a city where the sister, age three, will be given to a wealthy couple to raise as their own. The brother, however, will grow up in the poverty of his village and eventually move to America.
We follow stories of this and additional relationships, as the plot takes us from Kabul to Greece to Paris and ultimately to its conclusion in California. The lives of the children’s mother and her sister, of two wealthy Afghan-American brothers, and of others are not distractions. Rather, they reveal rich variations on Hosseini’s central themes of loss and of the ways decisions made by others in the past continue to echo in the present.
As a character in And the Mountains Echoed puts it, “I find comfort in it, in the idea of a pattern, of a narrative of my life taking shape, like a photograph in a darkroom, a story that slowly emerges…It sustains me, this story.”
I think you’ll agree.