2003, 324 p.
I think that I must be the only person in the planet not to have read this book or seen the movie- and maybe that’s why I hadn’t. It topped the bestseller lists in many places in the world, and it seems to be a book that people have taken to their hearts.
And why not? I’m not going to summarize the plot- it’s been done exhaustively here. For the first two-thirds of the book, it was so authentic that I was beguiled into treating it as autobiography–and yes, yes I know that first person narrator does not necessarily mean autobiography, but it was imbued with an authenticity that swept me along and made me forget that. And then, all of a sudden, at the point when the narrator receives a cut on his lip that mirrored the repaired cleft lip of his companion Hassan, the bones on the plot started to jut out. With the literary equivalent of ‘jumping the shark‘, it seemed to me that all the coincidences warped into absurdity and the attempts at parallels collapsed into contrived and heavy-handed plot manipulation. To his credit, the author resisted the temptation of an unequivocal happily-ever-after.
I can see why so many people have embraced the book, though. It is story-telling, pure and simple. I’m satisfied in a narrative sense when things ‘click’ as the chronology of the book catches up with something foreshadowed, and when events vibrate in a careful balance. There’s something emotionally filling about the goodies being recognized even if they’re not vindicated; the baddies being punished; redemption and the fulfillment of destiny. The book is a fable, well told. I’m only sorry that by overplaying the plotting, it became all too obvious that there was a plotter behind it- a literary Wizard of Oz, so to speak.
This book joins a group of best-sellers about Islamic countries that have been embraced by a Western mainstream audience, primed and curious perhaps by the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ (and isn’t that a term to make us squirm now) and the mess in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because of the audience they attract, such books have much weight placed upon them. And so I am uncomfortable with the piling of stereotype upon stereotype onto the Taliban villain here- Nazism, child abuse, hypocrisy, corruption. Let fanaticism be evil enough.
One last thing, though. As a person with a cleft lip herself, I was gratified to find that the depiction of Hassan’s cleft was probably the most accepting and matter-of-fact that I have read (despite the fact that it was called a ‘harelip’ throughout). I sometimes wonder if I’ve been targeted through internet data trawling, but I have seen more pictures of older children with unrepaired clefts on the internet through Smile Train advertisements than any first-world inhabitant would ever see in real life. By the time I reached the end of the book I had inured myself against the tear-jerking moments that seemed just a little too obviously crafted, but I will admit that I cried like a baby when Hassan looked into the mirror after his surgery and gently touched the stitches on his swollen lip. I’ve been there myself, and as a mother, and I know what a big, wonderful thing that is. I don’t know why, as author, Hosseini gave him the cleft – being a Hazara in Afghanistan, undersized, in a menial position in a rich household, bullied, degraded and betrayed as he is, would surely be enough. But the cleft was there, it just was, and that’s probably the way it should be.
So- a mixed response.