Home > Book Reviews > Book Review – The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Book Review – The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

*This review contains spoilers. Come to think of it, practically all of my reviews do.*

Even I–who usually tries to steer clear of the groupthink of bestseller lists and the like–was vaguely familiar with Hosseini and his book The Kite Runner. Its major selling point for me was that it was about Afghanistan, a country I know little about except that which is fed to us via news services. Apparently this book has sold over 10 million copies, and that doesn’t include me, as I bought The Kite Runner secondhand. Hosseini has written one subsequent novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, which I am now fairly eager to read.

The Kite Runner opens in Kabul in the 1960s, and we are introduced to an all-male family setup consisting of the patriarch Baba, his young son Amir (the novel’s narrator), adult servant Ali, and his young son Hassan. Amir’s mother died in childbirth and Hassan’s ran away shortly after his birth, so there are no women present. The opening section details the fairly idyllic life of Amir in 1960s Kabul, which I was surprised to find was nothing like the Kabul of more recent times. It seems that for the wealthy at least, Afghanistan was a pleasant place to live as late as 50 years ago. This is one of the great joys of reading for me–to discover people, places and times I had not known existed, to read history brought to life in narrative form. This is where The Kite Runner excels, for Hosseini creates a vivid picture of that time and place.

The story mainly concerns the exploits of Amir and Hassan, who are so close as to be virtually brothers, with one important difference: Amir is a Pashtun and Hassan a Hazara. I had heard the word Pashtun before but couldn’t have told you what it referred to, so herein lies the other great power of narrative fiction: it can be educational. Basically, the Pashtuns are Sunni Muslims and the Hazaras Shi’a, but in Afghanistan it appears that the Pashtuns are very much in command, and the Hazaras a despised underclass. That’s the limit of my current understanding on the matter. As a short aside, I question the value of organised religion (be it Islam, Christianity or whatever) if it can create such divides between people (Sunnis and Shias, Catholics and Protestants) that it becomes possible to butcher the other group in the name of God.  But I digress. Amir and Hassan have a great love for each other, but as we discover, it is more sacrifice on the part of the Hazara boy, and more demand on the part of the Pashtun. Here the author creates a useful microcosm of the wider issue.

This is a book with an epic sweep that is actually quite old-fashioned. It reminded me of the novels of John Irving and writers of his ilk (and era). There are no postmodern conundrums here. The book covers nearly thirty years in time, and charts the demise of the more modern Afghanistan at the hands of various aggressors: first reformists, then the Soviets, then the Northern Alliance, and finally the Taliban. Some of this is brought to life quite spectacularly. In a memorable scene where Baba and his son flee Kabul, they are forced to hide inside a petrol tanker along with many others. One boy dies as a result of the fumes, and his father shoots himself in the head in despair. I’ve missed out one of the most important scenes in the book, where Amir and Hassan win a kite-flying contest that gives the book its name, but you can read that for yourself.

The middle section of the book is possibly the weakest, as it is set in America and covers about twenty years in little more than 100 pages. The main focus here is the slow demise of Baba, Amir’s father. While it is true that Baba comes to life in this section, there is little else of interest here and the fleamarkets of San Fernando’s Afghan community aren’t quite as interesting as the events occurring in the mother country at the same time. Baba dies, Amir grows up and marries an Afghan woman called Soraya, and they try to have children. And fail. Amir becomes a mediocre writer, and now I know why I am reminded of John Irving here! The situation is a little like that in The World According to Garp. Quite similar, in fact. There it is: Hosseini has replicated a mode of writing that flourished in the US in the 60s and 70s, with spectacular (for him) success.

I found the final section quite riveting but somewhat predictable. Amir grows comfortable in his life in the US, forgetting all about his friend Hassan whom he left more than 20 years before. But when an old family friend summons him to Pakistan in June 2001, it all comes flooding back. One of the interesting things about this book is that the narrator, Amir, is something of a coward, and his self-loathing is in itself loathsome. At least, I found it so. What we get here is a heartfelt but cliched quest for redemption, in which Amir must right the wrongs of his childhood, where he allowed Hassan to be brutally raped by a local bully by the name of Assef. Hassan has died at the hands of the Taliban, but his eight year old son Sohrab still lives, albeit barely, in Kabul.

I won’t go through all the details of this, but suffice to say that it became blatantly obvious to me that Sohrab would be adopted by the childless Amir and Soraya at least 100 pages before it played out. The ins and outs of how this comes to pass are, admittedly, quite interesting, but in another cruel twist, Amir must confront the very same Assef that raped his friend Hassan to win the boy’s freedom. And the son himself commits an act in Amir’s defence that mirrors something his father almost did decades before. It’s warm, it’s heartfelt, but it’s all awfully convenient for the plot’s arc. To be sure, the novel’s conclusion does not play out in stereotypical fashion, and there is no glossing over the ongoing problems for all concerned, but at the heart of this novel there is an antiquated structure: a quest for redemption in which fate (or God?) appears to be pulling at the actors’ strings (but of course it’s just Hosseini).

I can see why this novel has sold 10 million copies. It’s essentially a feel good novel, despite some very graphic content. And its also very safe politically in its pro-America, anti-Taliban rhetoric. This is not to say that I have anything nice to say about the Taliban, but simply that this book appeared at a time when the tension between Americans and Afghans would have been at its zenith, and that this novel placates and soothes the reader. Everything, it seems to be saying, will work out in the end. Somehow, sometime, it will work out.

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