And the Mountains Echoed
402 pages (hardcover)
And the Mountains Echoed begins with a story told by a poor man to his children, three-year-old Pari and ten-year-old Abdullah: “Once upon a time, in the days when divs and jinns and giants roamed the land, there lived a farmer named Baba Ayub.”
Baba Ayub had five children, but his favorite was the youngest, a boy named Qais. One day, a div came to the village of Maidan Sabz, where Baba Ayub lived with his family. Every person in the village “trembled and held its breath,” for they all knew what the div would do:
Families prayed that the div would bypass their home for they knew that if the div tapped on their roof, they would have to give it one child. The div would then toss the child into a sack, sling the sack over its shoulder, and go back the way it had come. No one would ever see the poor child again. And if a household refused, the div would take all of its children.
Soon, the dreaded knock came on Baba Ayub’s rooftop. He and his wife were devastated, but they knew that, in order to save their other four children, they had to sacrifice one to the div. They wrote the names of their children on identical rocks and put the rocks in a bag. Then Baba Ayub drew a rock at random.
And, of course, the rock he drew had Qais’s name on it.
With a broken heart, he lifted his youngest son into his arms, and Qais, who had blind trust in his father, happily wrapped his arms around Baba Ayub’s neck. It wasn’t until Baba Ayub deposited him outside the house and shut the door that the boy realized what was amiss, and there stood Baba Ayub, eyes squeezed shut, tears leaking from both, back against the door, as his beloved Qais pounded his small fists on it, crying for Baba to let him back in, and Baba Ayub stood there, muttering, “Forgive me, forgive me,” as the ground shook with the div’s footsteps, and his son screeched . . .
Several years passed, but Baba Ayub could think of nothing but little Qais. So, he decided to make the multi-day trek to find the div’s mountaintop fort and rescue Qais. When he arrived, Baba Ayub told the div that he was there to kill the div and get his son back. The div agreed to grant Baba Ayub a duel, but, first, he asked Baba Ayub to look at something. He took him to a window with a view of beautiful gardens, flowers, terraces, fountains, and lawns.
But what truly brought Baba Ayub to his knees was the sight of children running and playing happily in the garden. They chased one another through the walkways and around trees. They played games of hide-and-seek behind the hedges. Baba Ayub’s eyes searched among the children and at last found what he was looking for. There he was! His son Qais, alive, and more than well.
The div assured Baba Ayub that Qais was happy and no longer remembered his life in Maidan Sabz. Qais’s happiness at the div‘s beautiful fort was the reward for Baba Ayub’s passing the div’s test. If Baba Ayub hadn’t chosen one of his children, all of them “would have perished . . . for they would have been cursed anyway, fathered as they were by a weak man. A coward who would see them all die rather than burden his own conscience.”
Nevertheless, Baba Ayub told the div that he wants to take Qais home. So, the div gave him a choice: take Qais home and Qais may never return, or go home without Qais and Baba Ayub may never return. Baba Ayub struggled to make the right decision, but finally decided that he must leave Qais at the fort, for Qais was happy and living a better life than the life Baba Ayub could provide in Maidan Sabz. AsBaba Ayub began his long trek home, the div gave him a potion to drink to make him forget all about Qais.
When they hear this story, Pari and Abdullah do not know that their father’s tale foreshadows and attempts to explain what happens next. The three travel from their village to Kabul, where their father sells Pari to a rich family.
The rest of the book follows not just Pari and Abdullah but other characters in the book as they grow older. It is a book about difficult decisions and how those decisions affect others.
It’s no secret that I am a big fan of a well-written short story (Exhibit A, Exhibit B). This is not a short-story collection, but it reads like one. The book is not written as a linear story, nor does it focus only on one or two main characters. Instead, each chapter is its own distinct story, focused on a different character. The characters are connected one to the next sometimes by family ties (one chapter is about Pari’s and Abdullah’s uncle, Nabi) and sometimes only peripherally (the next is about two brothers, Timur and Idris, who, as children, lived down the street from the house where Nabi worked). The chapters could stand alone as their own stories, but like a good short-story collection, they become stronger, more powerful, and more meaningful when read together as a whole.
As a lover of short stories, I found this style to be creative and engaging. But it is far from traditional. If you (like many) aren’t a fan of short fiction, then this may not be the book for you.
While this book’s style is far from formulaic, Hosseini has hit upon a best-seller formula that really works and which he continues to employ here with aplomb. It includes:
- Afghanistan (a country that seems dangerous, oppressive, exotic, and utterly foreign to most Americans);
- Beautiful, poetic (and occasionally super schmaltzy/feely/flowery) writing; and
- A story focused on the strength of family bonds that pulls at the heart-strings.
This book, like his two others that precede it (The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns), follows the formula to a T. Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
Who should read it: Fans of Hosseini’s other books. If you liked those two, chances are, you’ll like this one, too.
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:
- Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter by Phoebe Damrosch (My brother and I were lucky enough to go Per Se last week. I read this book, written by a former Per Se server, right before our dinner there.)
- All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu (Mengestu is the recipient of National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award, The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 award, and a 2012 MacArthur Foundation genius grant; this, his third book, was named an Amazon Best Book of the Month for March 2014.)