And the Mountains Echoed – By Khaled Hosseini

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Ten year old Abdullah and his li’l sister Pari travel from their village to the city of Kabul with Saboor, their father.  Without the knowledge that only two of the three will be making the journey back home…

The book starts off pretty well. As a story of a brother and sister.  And a father who, burdened by the drudgery that comes with being poor,  decides to give his daughter away to a wealthy childless couple in Kabul, Suleiman and Nila Wahdati. This is facilitated by Nabi, Saboor’s brother-in-law and the children’s step-uncle. Nabi is employed by Suleiman as a chauffeur, cook and caretaker of the Wahdati mansion.

The story spans from the 1930’s and ‘40s to late 2000s, with storylines skipping decades back and forth quite a bit. Pari was just three years old when she left her family, so as the years pass by, memories of Abdullah, Saboor and the rest of her family – her step-mother Parwana and half-brother Iqbal fade away.  Nila and Pari leave Afghanistan and move to Paris a couple of years later. Nabi continues to stay at on, and after Mr. Wahdati’s death, rents out the mansion to international aid workers in early 2000 for free. One of them is Markos, a Greek plastic surgeon. Nabi addresses a letter to Markos to be opened after his death. In that letter, he narrates everything and unburdens his conscience by requesting Markos to find Pari and deliver the contents of the letter to her.

As I said, the book starts quite well. And Hosseini does weave in a diverse tapestry of characters. He devotes a few pages exclusively to pretty much all of them. All of them were interesting, well handled and well resolved. Each of them is shown grappling with moral dilemmas of choosing between right, wrong, convenient and obligatory.  There is Parwana, who takes care of her invalid twin for years and part of the reason is to atone for the accident that she believes caused her sister’s current condition. So what prompts her to finally unmoor herself from that responsibility? And there is Idris and Timur, cousins and Wahdati’s neighbours, who return to Afghanistan decades later to claim ownership of their old house. Idris has always been slightly wary of Timur’s flamboyant “Americanised” self and garish display of his “helpful nature” by monetary assistance among his friends and the Afghan circle back in United States. He finds it hypocritical and pretentious. But when Idris gets a chance to be a hero in the eyes of an injured girl in a Kabul hospital, how well does he rise to the challenge of fulfilling his promise to her? There is Suleiman and Nabi, who over the years, end up forming a kinship out of shared loneliness. And Nila, who could never find the happiness and fulfilment that she thought would come if she completed a family with a child. And Markos, who leaves his tiny town of Tinos to travel around the world and help people to get medical aid.

Unlike Hosseini’s previous books, AtME starts decades before the foreign invasions in Afghanistan. There are references to loss of lives, people’s plight, infrastructure damage and lawlessness in this book too. But not in the detailed, personalised way that will make your stomach curl. Hosseini treads different themes, including some still perceived as blasphemous.

So what is my beef with the book?  Well, I think the biggest problem I had with the book is that there are so many characters and each of them with their separate tracks that in the end, the book sort of lost focus on what it started out as. And the only thing all these characters had in common is their connection to Kabul. None of their lives ever really crisscross to affect anything at all.. heck, each of them could probably have spin-off books written in the future (Nila by herself deserves a separate one.. what a hauntingly tragic life!) . By the time the story veers back to Pari and Abdullah, I sort of lost whatever keenness I had to see them meet or reconnect again. It is my opinion that for a book to deliver some sort of emotional punch in the end, the rest of the book should have adequate “page time” devoted to the characters to build that rapport with them. Abdullah was pretty much absent through most of the book.

The Book Thief – By Markus Zusak

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I usually try staying away from reading reviews apart from skimming through the hardcover blurbs, so I didn’t know much about this book. I knew it has been a regular on the top ten bestseller list and that it was about a young girl living in Germany under Nazi regime. I assumed it would be something on the lines of The Diary of Anne Frank and since I hadn’t read much fiction set on WW2 in Germany, I thought I would give this a try.

It might sound a bit morbid but having “Death” as the narrator works quite well for this book. And when I do think of it, who else or what else can witness the ramifications of a war from all perspectives?  Ahh, perspective. That is quite an underlying theme in this book. I have to say, I expected the book to be told from the perspective of the Jews. But this book really isn’t as much about the Jews as it is about Germany as a country and how its people viewed the war and Hitler’s propaganda against the Jews and Communists. How many truly believed in it and how many just went along with it because standing up for the oppressed would mean severe consequences for themselves and their families.

The narrator focusses on Liesel and her life in the town of Molching, Munich.  Sent away by her mother, Liesel finds a home in Himmel Street, the poorer part of Molching, with her foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann. She commits her first act of accidental thievery before landing on Himmel Street, when she picks up a handbook on grave-digging at her brother’s funeral.  Later she steals more books, salvaging them from book-burnings and breaking into the library of Ilsa Hermann, the mayor’s wife. Soon the books become a source of comfort and distraction, as she shares them with her Papa Hans. Hans isn’t that proficient at reading either, but with his limited knowledge helps Liesel read through the books and ponder over the unfamiliar words. And at its core, this story is about that – the power of words. How words which can create something so beautiful as books, can also be used by one man to brainwash and control the minds of an entire nation. When Papa brings home Max, a Jew and hides him in the basement, the Hubermanns lives takes the turn of .. well, walking on a tightrope every single day. This is when Liesel is forced to grow up and take responsibility of keeping a secret. From everyone, including her best friend Rudy. Over the course of time, Max ceases to be just a secret in Liesel’s life and becomes a very dear friend.  It is during this time that Liesel truly understands and appreciates her Papa’s strength of character, her Mama’s resilience. In trying to keep another person alive. To provide shelter in stealth. To provide food when they are barely managing to scrape through pieces of bread and pea soup everyday.

The writing is beautiful and unconventional. Markus Zusak uses liberal amounts of symbolism, facts screaming out like headlines in boldface, and even imagery. My favourite sequence in the book is when Max makes a sketchbook of his life and gifts it to Liesel for her birthday. To make the sketchbook, he uses the pages of Mein Kampf after painting them white, thereby covering his tormentor’s words and supplanting his own.  Zusak shows books having a therapeutic effect on both Max and Liesel who are frequently haunted by dreams of their past. Liesel copes by reading and Max.. by writing.  Somewhere along the way, she begins to pen down her thoughts too.

The lighter and fun moments of this book come mostly from Liesel and Rudy’s soccer matches, their stealing escapades (books and food) and his attempts to try and be her hero and get a kiss in return. I didn’t like him much initially, but the character grew on me, after the few times he stood up for Liesel and another friend. There were times I wondered whether his “rebellion” against a Hitler Youth Group leader was idiocy, but maybe , just maybe, sometimes it takes a bit of “stupid courage” to effect some change.

There were a lot of sub-plots and Ilsa Hermann’s chapter in Liesel’s life was one of them. Probably the encounter that gave Liesel the biggest gift which helped her get through daily threats of bombing and raids – free access to a library full of hundreds of books. Wracked by the death of her son in WW1, Ilsa spends her days grieving and living as a recluse. Liesel inadvertently helps Ilsa face her loss and come to terms with it.

This is a pretty satisfying read for most part. However, I do feel Zusak got a bit carried away with the “headline-style notes” used by the narrator throughout the book.  I found it slightly distracting and unnecessary at times. However the biggest dampener was Death revealing a major plot spoiler half-way through the book. I like a certain degree of unpredictability when I am reading, and maybe that’s why I didn’t feel too pleased when I read the book’s final pages. And I think somewhere I yearned to read more about what happens to the characters later. I didn’t get the feeling of closure that I would have liked.