The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
8.5/10, a touching and richly textured story of family and atonement
Stories of redemption and atonement pluck at our heart more strongly than any other theme. In our past, we’ve all made mistakes, but the opportunity to make up for them rarely greets us in as perfect a fashion as it does in fiction. So we live along with our fictional hero, cringe at his fall, and return with him to the state of grace.
Of course, our own mistakes are rarely as life-altering as the one made by Amir, the hero of “The Kite Runner,” who doesn’t quite abandon a boat full of people to fire, but it feels about the same to him. His best friend Hassan, the son of his family’s servant, gets into some rather serious trouble, during which Amir stands by and does nothing. He isn’t sure Hassan has seen him (at least, I’m not sure whether he knows or not), but that isn’t really relevant: Amir feels the press of guilt immediately, and even though he’s only twelve at the time, his life is forever altered.
Thrown into the mix is Hassan’s race: he is a Hazara, while Amir and his family are Pashtun. Amir’s peers mock him for his friendship with a Hazara boy, a taunt which Amir is not strong enough to confront. His strength is an issue for his father Baba, who wants him to become as strong and proud a man as he himself is. Baba seems, in Amir’s eyes, to prefer Hassan to him, which further stokes his resentment and his guilt.
How does a young man become worthy of his father and his best friend? This is what Amir must ultimately discover, after leaving Afghanistan for California. Though he has a reasonably good life in California, he knows there is something missing.
Hosseini writes vividly, with wonderful detail. He shares my love of food, never hesitating to tell us what is being cooked. The smells of the city are an integral part of the landscape, and his portrait of post-war Kabul is one of the most heart-wrenching cityscapes I’ve read since war-time Shanghai. The characters are just as vividly drawn: Baba, the demanding father; Hassan, the devoted best friend; Amir, the conflicted young man struggling between what he feels and what society and his family tell him.
Indeed, if the story has a weakness, it’s that the characters are too perfectly drawn, making this almost more of a parable than a story. It seems to shift between the two: the characters stray little from their archetypes, but the setting they move in is lovingly, richly detailed. This story has the feel of a fairy tale, but a fairy tale set in our unpleasant, gritty, modern world.
Certainly I recommend it, especially as our involvement in and attention to Afghanistan creeps back up. Apart from the wonderful characters, the book does provide a nostalgic look at what life was like once for the Afghanis, how they suffered from the Alliance and then the Taliban, and what exactly has been lost. I don’t quite see a connection to Amir’s own story–Afghanistan seems more the victim of a whole schoolyard full of bullies than a country trying to atone for some transgression–but then, there doesn’t really have to be. The writing is simple but effective, and the story keeps moving briskly all the way through.