Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Kite Runner

Khaled Hosseini's debut novel is simply a remarkable achievement. I suspect that most readers of The Kite Runner come to the book knowing relatively little about Afghan history prior to what has happened there during the last three decades, beginning with the Russian invasion and ending with the American ouster of Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan's Taliban government. Hosseini begins his story in the early 1970s, prior to those events, and describes an Afghani lifestyle that was soon to be destroyed and replaced by a culture of repression and warfare that dominates to the present day.

Amir, the son of a powerful Kabul businessman, considers himself to be a coward. And, for the most part, he is correct. He senses that he is a disappointment to his father and has largely resolved himself to the fact that he will never please the man. But his father's affection for Hassan, the household's servant boy and Amir's best friend, is a painful and constant reminder of the distance between himself and his only surviving parent.

Despite their differences in religious beliefs and social status, and the fact that Hassan is Amir's servant, the two boys grow up more like brothers than anything else. Hassan becomes a fiercely loyal best friend to Amir, someone who protects him from the city's bullies and looks out for him in every way possible. Amir, on the other hand, can never really forget that Hassan is a servant boy and a Hazara, a minority loathed by the dominant Afghani culture for its differences in religious beliefs and physical appearance. When one day faced with the chance to save Hassan from being humiliated and physically abused by his tormentors, Amir's courage fails him and he runs, leaving his friend to his terrible fate.

Amir, unable to live with what he's done or to face Hassan again, compounds his lack of courage with a scheme that is destined to forever change the lives of everyone in his household, a scheme that comes to haunt Amir himself more than anyone else. Even a new life in San Francisco with his father after fleeing the Taliban takeover of Kabul is not enough to erase the guilt that Amir feels, and when offered a chance to do some good for Hassan and his family, Amir somehow finds enough courage to return to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to offer his help.

Khaled Hosseini tells his tale of Afghanistan's tragic history through the eyes of its people, citizens who are living ordinary lives with everyday problems and who are largely content with their world. His characters are sympathetic and believable, and their experiences and reactions to what has happened to their country give the reader a better understanding of life in that part of the world than any history book or news magazine will ever offer. The same can be said for Hosseini's depiction of the close-knit Afghan immigrant community that has settled in San Francisco, a group he describes so compassionately and so completely that he leaves his reader with a good feel for what the immigrant experience is like in a world influenced by today's politics.

The Kite Runner is one of those rare novels that it would be a shame to miss. So don't.

Rated at: 5.0
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