Unless you have a prodigious memory, it's a good idea to take notes while reading Khaled Hosseini's third novel about his native Afghanistan, in order to keep track of the shifting cast of characters, relationships, incidents and the atlas of countries he visits in the course of telling his elemental story.
Despite its many diversions, "And the Mountains Echoed" is simply about how a family cannot ultimately be shattered by the twists and turns of history, written in the tradition of 19th-century fiction with its rambling plots and Victorian sentimentality. Hosseini practices the familiar writer's adage, "show, don't tell," filling his pages with streams of descriptions, from blistered feet to the scabs on an old man's head, leaving readers no room to bring their own imagination to his novel.
There is value in Hosseini's mountain of verbiage — the history of Afghanistan from the 1940s to the present related in the lives of the impoverished Saboor family in a hardscrabble village outside Kabul. In his painstaking fashion, Hosseini first narrates an Afghan legend of how a poor family gave up a favored child so the child could have a better life, then repeats the legend through the modern family.
Three-year-old Pari is sold to a wealthy Kabul woman, who flees the repressive society for Paris, taking Pari with her. Pari's brother must cope with the loss of his sister along with grinding poverty and an abusive father as his country begins its long descent into violence.
That plot could satisfy a lot of writers, but Hosseini frames it with myriad characters who pass through Afghanistan. Usually, these peripheral people appear at first without warning or context, then they gradually fill the reader in on their complicated life.
Take the Greek plastic surgeon Markos Varvaris, who volunteers at a Kabul hospital during the U.S.-led occupation. He serves as plot device to connect other characters, but Hosseini also creates a diverting account of his life.
Markos also delivers a chilling summation of life's indifference: "I learned that the world didn't see the inside of you, that it didn't care a whit about the hopes and dreams, and sorrows, that lay masked by skin and bone."
Hosseini possesses a fertile imagination that's allowed to roam at will, but it frequently lands well beyond the boundary of his primary story. "And the Mountains Echoed" feels more like a short-story collection than a well-ordered novel, and while its author indulges in old-fashioned storytelling, his stories are just versions of ones we've read before.
Bob Hoover is the retired books editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.