Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Book Review: The Kite Runner

Amir and Hassan are best friends in Afghanistan during the late-1960's and early-1970's, or as best of friends as the culture will allow. Amir is Pashtun and a Sunni; Hassan is a Hazara and a Shi'a. Amir lives in a big house and goes to school. Hassan lives in a mud hut and is the son of Ali--the servant of Amir's father, Baba.

Both boys are motherless and were nursed "from the same breast" (the same wet nurse), which makes them, according to Ali, closer than brothers.

Hassan is also the best kite runner in Kabul--he chases down the kites cut free during the kite fighting competition, which is nearly a national sport in Afghanistan. Hassan has an uncanny ability to determine where the kite will ultimately end up and is there waiting for it.

More than anything, Amir wants his father's love. Unfortunately Amir takes after his mother: sensitive, poetic, thoughtful. Baba would prefer a son more like himself: athletic, strong, sure of himself. Baba's friend and business partner, Rahim Khan, is often the only one who can bridge the gap between father and son.

Harder for Amir to accept is the fondness Baba often shows to Hassan, which includes providing the surgery necessary to repair Hassan's harelip. Amir's jealousy cause him to try to provoke Hassan, who tells Amir, "For you, a thousand times over."

Ultimately, though, Amir's jealousy causes Hassan to leave, which means when Baba and Amir flee Afghanistan for America, Hassan and his family are left behind.

Amir and Baba rebuild their lives in America, settling in Fremont, California, where they find a large Afghani population. Baba works at a gas station while Amir goes to high school. On weekends, they comb through garage sales on Saturdays and sell their finds at the San Jose flea market on Sundays. Their lives move forward as Amir continues on to college and falls in love. In traditional Afghani fashion, Baba speaks with her father and the marriage is arranged. Their engagement is not long because Baba has cancer. He lives long enough to see Amir married and settled, but not to see Amir's success as a writer in his adopted homeland.

Life has become comfortable when Amir receives a phone call from Rahim Khan. Rahim is in Pakistan and would like to see Amir.

Rahim Khan is dying. But before he does, there is some information he must pass on to Amir and some decisions Amir must make. In more ways than one, Amir must confront his past.

The author, Dr. Khaled Hosseini, is an emigre from Afghanistan himself and lives in the Bay Area. And so his novel provides an insider's view of Afghani customs, cultures, and prejudices. He, too, was a child when his family fled to America and Amir's memories of Kabul are those of a child, which makes the modern reality of Kabul much more grim.

Ultimately, however, this is a story about individuals and how their actions and decisions echo down through the years. Assumptions and prejudices are confronted--and those most often are internal.

The Kite Runner is an emotionally powerful book and I'm not sure how Dr. Hosseini is going to follow this book. (I kind of hope he writes a different book rather than continuing the story.) There are a lot of themes: relationships between fathers and sons, Truth, prejudice, tradition, literature, God and religion. I raced to the ending, then went back and read it more leisurely so I could enjoy the impressions of a part of the world I will probably never visit.

On the March Hare Scale: 4.5 out of 5 Golden Bookmarks