I've been meaning to read The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini's perennial worldwide bestseller, for well over a decade. Given the rave reviews and the millions of copies sold in a multitude of languages, how could it be otherwise? But the more I waited, the more the novel's popularity grew. And as with every such literary phenomenon, expectations have a tendency to grow to such an extent that it is often impossible for the book to actually live up to them. Sadly, such was the case with this one.
I reckon I feel the same way those poor readers felt after reading Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code or Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo years after the novels topped the bestseller charts around the globe. You acknowledge that it was a good read, but you fail to grasp how it could have become so immensely popular. Lofty expectations have a way to let you down in the end, which is what happened with this work. I did enjoy The Kite Runner, no doubt about it. I brought it with me to Charlevoix and it was a nice vacation read. And therein lies the problem. It just turned out to be a good book, not the great read I envisioned.
Here's the blurb:
Amir is the son of a wealthy Kabul merchant, a member of the ruling caste of Pashtuns. Hassan, his servant and constant companion, is a Hazara, a despised and impoverished caste. Their uncommon bond is torn by Amir's choice to abandon his friend amidst the increasing ethnic, religious, and political tensions of the dying years of the Afghan monarchy, wrenching them far apart. But so strong is the bond between the two boys that Amir journeys back to a distant world, to try to right past wrongs against the only true friend he ever had. The unforgettable, heartbreaking story of the unlikely friendship between a wealthy boy and the son of his father’s servant, The Kite Runner is a beautifully crafted novel set in a country that is in the process of being destroyed. It is about the power of reading, the price of betrayal, and the possibility of redemption; and an exploration of the power of fathers over sons—their love, their sacrifices, their lies. A sweeping story of family, love, and friendship told against the devastating backdrop of the history of Afghanistan over the last thirty years, The Kite Runner is an unusual and powerful novel that has become a beloved, one-of-a-kind classic.
Khaled Hosseini's depiction of Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan in the 70s was simply amazing. Unless you have an interest for the history of that part of the world, most people from my generation immediately think of war-torn images when they consider that country. Yet the author brings us back to another time and place, to a time when Afghanistan was a more liberal and open society. Before the revolution, before the Soviet invasion, before the civil war, before they were forced to live under the yoke of the religious dogma enforced by the Talibans, Afghanistan was a much different place. And although I was well aware of this and have been for a long time, Hosseini's narrative brings the country and its inhabitants to life in such a fashion that it makes you feel as though it's a totally different country and culture. And for the most part, it is. The first portion of the novel, the one focusing on the tale before the Soviets moved into the country, is nothing short of magical. I was enthralled from the very beginning and couldn't put the book down.
The second part is no less powerful. Once more, Khaled Hosseini's depiction of Kabul following the Soviet invasion creates a vivid imagery that leaps off the page. Amir and his father's harrowing escape to Pakistan is gut-wrenching, and their being forced to adapt to their new life as refugees in America shows what such men and women must go through and how difficult that process can be. Up until that point, The Kite Runner was a poignant and memorable work, one of the best novels I had ever read. Trouble is, everything falters in the last part of the novel. The depiction of Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan under the brutal reign of the Talibans remains as evocative as that of the previous two eras, but the author's desire for Amir to achieve redemption by somehow undoing his past wrongs engender a number of contrived coincidences that unfortunately killed the story for me. Indeed, by trying to come full circle, so to speak, I felt that Khaled Hosseini prevented this book from hitting you with the enormous emotional punch he had planned for the end. Which, in my opinion, is quite sad considering just how perfect everything was until Amir returns to Afghanistan.
The characterization was terrific. Understandably, the relationship between Amir and Hassan, two kids from different castes who became best friends, is at the heart of the story that is The Kite Runner. Having said that, Amir's father, Baba, influenced this tale in multiple ways, and the novel would never have been the same without him. The same thing can be said of Ali, Hassan's father, as well as Rahim Khan, Baba's business partner and a man who's had a big influence on Amir as he was growing up. Soraya, the young Afghan woman Amir marries in the USA, and Sohrab, Hassan's son, also have important roles to play before the end comes. Khaled Hosseini has a knack for creating authentic characters, be they main or secondary protagonists. Although the novel failed to "wow" me as much as I would have wanted, this unforgettable cast will remain in my memories for a long time.
The Kite Runner is a multigenerational tale which explores the complexities inherent to the relationships between parents and their children. Friendship, betrayal, guilt, and redemption are other themes that are explored throughout the novel. One would think that this would make for a very hard story to get into, yet the author was able to weave all of those themes into the storylines and still make the book compulsively readable. Other than the redemption aspect, that is, which is clearly overdone and sadly killed the book for me.
Hosseini's narrative grabs hold and captures the imagination, taking you away to an Afghanistan that was and then to the country devastated by war that we know today. Never at any point is the pace an issue. This is a novel that you get through rather quickly. The more Amir's tale unfold, the more you need to discover what happens next.
Though the last part did not do it for me, I can understand how The Kite Runner struck a chord with so many readers around the world. But after such a realistic and striking start, to pursue Amir's redemption using such unrealistic coincidences cheapened the overall reading experience for me. . .