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Tragic tale of betrayal, lies and redemption
The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
Member Name: ms_memory
The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
Date: 01/02/10, updated on 16/03/10 (144 review reads)
Advantages: Well-written. fast-paced tear-jerker
Disadvantages: Extremely upsetting in parts
** Plot **
The Kite Runner is narrated by a fictional Afghan boy named Amir and tells the story of his childhood and young adulthood in the 1970s and 1980s, set against the backdrop of political and social upheaval in Afghanistan and, later on, his new life in America.
Amir's early childhood is not exactly idyllic, but he does start off fairly content and comfortable. His father, Baba, is a well-known businessman and the family lives with their servant Ali and his son Hassan in a pleasant, upmarket home designed by Baba himself, situated in a well-to-do suburb of Kabul. Amir and Hassan are close in age and share a deep friendship despite their unequal social status. In fact, the kind Baba treats Hassan almost like a member of the family, and they all enjoy a good life for several years.
However, tensions start to come to the fore as time goes on. Amir's mother, a scholar of poetry, died when he was a baby and Amir seems to have inherited her love of language and her imagination. With little outside help he develops into a talented storyteller and writer. This does not find favour with Baba, however, who values physical prowess over artistic talent, and Amir feels that he is a disappointment as a son. He decides that the best way to secure Baba's admiration is to win the annual Kabul kite-flying contest, a popular festival in which kite-fliers battle to cut the strings of their competitors' kites while keeping their own kite up in the sky as long as possible. But the biggest accolade goes to the team that not only wins the competition, but also manages to get hold of the best kites that have been cut down - this involves chasing the falling kites through the city's streets until they land.
Amir and Hassan enter the competition together, with Hassan, ever the supportive friend, agreeing to help Amir by acting as a 'kite runner' while Amir tries to keep his kite in the sky as long as possible. However, the competition ends in tragedy when Hassan gets into trouble and Amir chooses victory over loyalty to his companion.
This kicks off a chain of events that, exacerbated by the worsening political situation in Afghanistan, change the lives of the boys and their fathers beyond recognition. It is not until he is an adult and living in the USA that the guilt-ridden Amir finally takes steps towards redemption and attempts to make up for what he did all those years ago. This requires him to return to Kabul, which is now under the power of the Taliban, to come to terms with some shocking family secrets, and to put his own life on the line to save another.
** My opinion **
I found this to be a very powerful and moving story that stuck in my mind for a long time after I'd read it. It is all the more painful because the author stresses from the beginning that something terrible is going to happen to Hassan - we just don't know what, and when it finally does happen it is not a release from the tension, but rather just the start of a series of horrific experiences.
The novel is action-packed, with the plot moving between Afghanistan, Pakistan and America, and across three decades. As if the war and fighting in Afghanistan were not bad enough, the reader is then taken through a hair-raising escape from Afghanistan across the border to Pakistan, and introduced to the situation that political asylum-seekers face when trying to re-establish their lives in a new country (the US in this instance) and the myriad of problems that they encounter. The end of the novel then contrasts Amir's new life in America with what has happened to his homeland and those people - former friends and neighbours - who weren't so lucky and have had to stay in a country where terror now reigns.
I found the characterisation convincing on the whole. I read one review that complained of the 'weaselly characters' and this is true to an extent - Amir comes across as cold and cowardly after his betrayal of Hassan, and his father too has his faults and is never entirely honest with his son. Even Baba's best friend, who is like a godfather figure to Amir, goes along with the lies and is unsympathetic at times. But there are also some essentially 'good' characters, such as Hassan and his father and the woman Amir goes on to marry, though they too are not always all they are made out to be. In general, I found I was able to identify with the characters, and while their actions sometimes made me despair, they didn't prevent me from enjoying the book.
One of the most enjoyable and edifying aspects for me is the author's incorporation of local language, traditions and history into the novel. I felt that his descriptions really brought the sights, sounds and smells of Kabul to life, and added a great richness to the story. As someone who is interested in historical linguistics (the history and development of languages), I particularly liked the fact that the novel was dotted with Persian words and turns of phrase - some of which I recognised (e.g. 'tandoori', which means oven, and 'naan', which means bread) .
There is a great deal of quite graphic violence in this novel, but I didn't feel at any point that it was too much or exaggerated (though I probably wouldn't let youngsters read it). If anything, it was the uncomplaining suffering of some of the characters and the poignancy of their changed lives that upset me more than the violent scenes. One of the saddest parts for me was when Amir returns to Kabul after a long absence and we see that the city of his childhood no longer exists.
In conclusion, this is a masterful account of how one mistake on a personal level can change so many people's lives for the worse, and also how a once-great country can be destroyed by political mistakes. This is a novel of extreme beauty in the way is written and its characters' display of dignity in suffering, but its overall tone is tragic. It left me thinking that Afghanistan is, in a way, like a beautiful kite that has been cut down and chased. For all its local colour and attempts at redemption, what the novel leaves us with is the image of a broken country and a broken people.
** This review also appears on ciao.co.uk under the same user name **
Summary: A masterpiece