In And the Mountain’s Echoed, it is passengers getting on and off that train who carry the story. And Hosseini is a superb story-teller. He knows how to accumulate the small details which bring a place and a person to life and capture memories and emotions: a son noticing the looseness of an elderly mother’s pyjamas, the denture glue and the fuzzy slippers she would never once have worn – all the small signs of change which add up to his sudden recognition of her frailty. The bonds of family, of responsibility and of love are not always easy to accept and Hosseini realistically conveys the individual strengths and weaknesses of his characters.
This book begins with a traditional Oriental tale of divs and jinns and families threatened by a fearsome child-stealing monster. Abdullah and his little sister Pari listen as their father tells this frightening tale, unaware that its moral – that a finger had to be cut to save a hand – will soon have horrible relevance to their own lives. It is Afghanistan, 1952, and Abdullah and Pari live with their father, step-mother and new little brother in a village near to Kabul: but this is soon to change. As different characters tell of their own lives we move from Afghanistan to Paris, San Francisco and a small island in Greece, and we travel back and forth in time. Always, there is a link, however tenuous, to Abdullah and Pari and their family and the story-train does eventually reach its destinations, but along the way we meet many different people.
Whilst never forgetting the horrors of war and the choices forced on families by disaster and poverty, Hosseini concentrates on the way in which life goes on, regardless of change. This is story-telling at its best as his characters reveal themselves through their varied tales. There are those who flee Afghanistan; some who migrate and then briefly return; the few who are drawn there as aid-workers by war and its aftermath; and those who must stay or who choose to stay, some of whom benefit from war and some who are devastated by it. At times the sudden jump from one voice to another is disconcerting, and the connection of each new character with the story is not always immediately apparent, but Hosseini draws everything together with great skill.
Many of Hosseini’s characters have secrets. Nila, the most flamboyant, has things in her past which she never fully reveals, and facts about her marriage, too, which she keeps to herself. It is Nabi, Abdullah’s and Pari’s uncle and Nila’s family manservant and chauffeur who knows, or learns, some of these secrets. And it is his letter to a foreign surgeon working in Afghanistan which eventually reveals to Pari Nila’s biggest secret – the one which changed Pari’s life.
Quite how the metaphorical ‘loss of a finger’ saved Abdullah’s and Pari’s family is not clear. Each person was changed by events and in ways over which they did not always have control, but whether this was for the better or not readers must decide for themselves. Always, however, this book is enjoyable.