I was one of the few book bloggers who hadn't read this book, but I loved the film and cried my eyes out at multiple viewings of this very moving story. So when I heard that the stage version was making it's European debut in Nottingham and Liverpool this year I was very excited and proud, and decided it was time to get hold of a copy. It came to me in a lovely second hand bookshop in Nottingham called Bookwise.
The story is narrated by Amir, now an adult in America, recounting his 1970's childhood in Afghanistan with his father, a wealthy businessman and his only living parent, and also his childhood friend Hassan, the son of the longserving and loyal household servant Ali and a Hazara, one of the lowlier tribes living in Afghanistan. Not only are Amir and Hassan playmates, getting up to mischief, inventing games and re-enacting their favourite Westerns from the cinema, but they fly kites together in competitions, with Amir as the flyer and Hassan as his skilled kite runner who collects the fallen kites as trophies. Hassan is unfailingly loyal to Amir, but because of his lowly status, is a target for a local bully and his gang. When they finally get Hassan alone in a back street in Kabul, what happens there will change both of their lives forever...
"I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years."
Afghanistan is changing and very soon, under the Taliban, Kite Flying will be made illegal, and their unforgiving policies will wreak havoc on this once cultural, sophisticated and historic country. Amir and his father escape to America, but the boys lives were torn apart long before the Taliban ever came along.
When a family friend, many years later, calls Amir back to the country of his birth, with an invitation, an opportunity, to make things right, he reluctantly goes back, and into a situation that brings sorrow, realisation, anguish, but also release for his twelve year old self and the weight he has carried all these years.
I already knew the story from the film, so the plot held no surprises for me, but even so, this book was an emotional ride as all the best loved books are. At turns warm and affectionately familiar as it relives young boys playing together, and then heartbreakingly tragic with tangible pain of deep seated guilt and remorse, this book wrings your emotions dry ready to fill you up again for more.
The story can be split into 3 parts, Amir and Hassan as childhood friends, the escape to America and growing up, and then the dangerous return to a changed country that has been ripped apart in unimaginable ways, but where Amir will find the truths of his past and a way to move forward.
The writing is beautiful, conveying all that Amir feels so that you feel it too, his relationship with his father, his wife, his childhood friend and also with the country of his birth. Amir's actions are not always easily comprehendible, yet Hosseini gives us enough to make us want to yell at him as well as feel sympathy and some understanding for his motives, ensuring that when he does return to Afghanistan we are still rooting for him, knowing how much he needs to turn things for the better. It is a painful journey, for him and for us too, but one that is worth investing your time in, because this is a wonderful book.
Throughout my time reading it I could not help comparing it to another book I read about Afghanistan not long ago, The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad. I did not trust the blinkered account of a country that many Europeans do not understand, simply because many of us have only heard of the atrocities, a war torn, bleak place of untold oppression, especially towards women. This is the image repeatedly available in the media, but Afghanistan has had a colourful history before the Russians and then the Taliban brought their miseries. A country of liberality, culture and learning, populated by intelligent, affectionate, hospitable people. Everything that I had a problem with in Seierstad's book was counteracted here as Hosseini displays loving relationships between families, men and women. A patriarchal society like many others, but human and teaming with life, warmth and human interaction, the poetry and rhythm of every day life, making its demise even more tragic. Seierstad wrote an account where none of this was present or even evident in its past, offering little in human qualities as if the Afghani's lack of humanity had brought about their situation, a view that I was deeply suspicious about. Hosseini tells us of a different and much more believable place.
This is a truly lovely book dealing with many difficult subjects and so many layers that it does feel epic. The plot turns about so many times and moves from the relatively leisurely beginning to an action packed pelter of a pace in the third part. It is clear why this book has been held so high in many readers regard and has provided much for book groups to chew on. Highly recommended.
Khaled Hosseini's website can be found by using the link, where you can find discussion questions on The Kite Runner and information about his other work.