The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

A story of Kabul…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

the kite runner2Two young boys grow up side by side in Kabul in the 1970s. Though in some ways they are best friends, they are not equal. The narrator, Amir, is the son of a rich man, whom he calls Baba, and Hassan is the son of Baba’s servant, Ali. Both boys are motherless: Amir’s mother died in childbirth, while Hassan’s mother ran away not long after he was born, leaving her husband to bring Hassan up alone. Amir is being educated, Hassan is illiterate and likely to remain that way. Hassan acts as Amir’s servant as well as his friend. But, more importantly in an Afghanistan divided along lines of class and religion, Amir is a Pashtun Sunni, part of the ruling class, while Hassan is a Hazara Shi’a – a group reviled and mocked. One day, during a kite-fighting competition, something will happen that will drive these friends apart, in a foreshadowing of the wars that will soon break the country apart. Many years later, as Amir returns to Kabul from his new home in America, his mission to put right some of the things left unresolved from his childhood mirrors the question of whether this broken country can ever find resolutions to its bitter divisions.

The first half of the book, which tells of the boys’ childhood and the event that changed their lives, is beautifully written, full of emotional truth. It is written in the first person from Amir’s point of view and he is a harsh judge of his younger self. He shows himself as weak and cowardly, traitorous even, while Hassan is all that is good and loyal and brave. Amir feels his father blames him for his mother’s death, and is jealous that Baba often seems to show as much fondness for Hassan as for himself.

I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.

While Hassan is a little too good to be true, it feels as if this is deliberate – that Amir’s guilt over his own actions has led him into idealising his childhood friend. And the reverse of that is that Amir’s depiction of himself also has to be seen as being affected by the same guilt, so that while sometimes it’s hard to like him, it’s still easy to empathise – to remember that he was a child and to look at how both boys had the prejudices of their society instilled into them from birth. We also see how Amir is affected by the struggle to gain his father’s affection despite feeling that he could never be the kind of boy his father wants his son to be.

For me, the second half of the book didn’t completely match up to the excellent standards of the first. Amir and his father flee the wars and end up in America. There is a lengthy section about their experiences there, and perhaps I’m just a little tired of the “immigrant experience” storyline now; it seems to have been done too often over the last couple of decades, and I didn’t feel this one added much to either that subject or this story. It feels like something of a hiatus, and a little contrived – a device almost, to allow Amir to return later to Kabul, looking at it through fresh, adult eyes. And when he does go back to Kabul, to show the horrors of life under the Taliban, it begins to verge on the polemical.

     In his rearview mirror, I saw something flash in his eyes. “You want to know?” he sneered. “Let me imagine, Agha sahib. You probably lived in a big two- or three-story house with a nice backyard that your gardener filled with flowers and fruit trees. All gated, of course. Your father drove an American car. You had servants, probably Hazaras. Your parents hired workers to decorate the house for the fancy mehmanis they threw, so their friends would come over to drink and boast about their travels to Europe or America. And I would bet my first son’s eyes that this is the first time you’ve ever worn a pakol.” He grinned at me, revealing a mouthful of prematurely rotting teeth. “Am I close?”
     “Why are you saying these things?” I said.
     “Because you wanted to know,” he spat. He pointed to an old man dressed in ragged clothes trudging down a dirt path, a large burlap pack filled with scrub grass tied to his back. “That’s the real Afghanistan, Agha sahib. That’s the Afghanistan I know. You? You’ve always been a tourist here, you just didn’t know it.”

Khaled Hosseini
Khaled Hosseini

This is a minor criticism though of what is, overall, a great book. I was thinking as I read the second half that it may well have affected me differently thirteen years ago when it was first published – I would have known far less about Afghanistan and almost nothing about the Taliban, and I suspect I would have found the book more shocking and gut-wrenching as a result. Now, if anything, the picture he paints seems a little muted – how easily we become conditioned to horror. Now the first half seems beautifully novelistic, but the second half feels almost journalistic, and the ending didn’t convince me nearly as much as the story of Amir and Hassan as children. I’m glad to have read it, though, and highly recommend it. I suspect it’s a book that will find its full impact again if and when we ever reach a point where this never-ending conflict is past and fading into history.

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29 thoughts on “The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

  1. Couldn’t agree more. A great review of a moving book. I once heard Khaled talk about the book on the radio. He said the novel started out as a short story. It sat in a drawer for a long time before he showed it to his uncle. After reading it, his uncle told Khaled it wasn’t finished. Khaled carried on writing and the Kite Runner was the result. Perhaps this is one of the reason’s why the second half of the novel feels a tad forced and less engaging than the first half?

    • That’s interesting, Marianne – that could well be the reason why the two halves felt different. Seemed to me his heart was engaged in the first half while it was his brain that wrote the second. I found his later book, And the Mountains Echoed, worked better for me on the whole – maybe because he’d just improved as a novelist, or maybe because by that time he didn’t feel the need to educate us to quite the same degree…

  2. How fascinating, FictionFan! And it’s a part of the world that I don’t understand as well as I wish I did. It sounds as though those larger movements and social structures are brought to the human level in this novel, and that’s the sort of novel that works best for me. I may have to put this one on the radar.

    • He puts a lot of humanity into his books, which is what tends to make them such emotional reads. My own preference was for his later book, And the Mountains Echoed, which I felt avoided the polemical edge of this one and just let the characters speak for themselves. But it might be one of those cases where it simply depends on which one you read first…

  3. I read this when it first came out. I agree that it had a shock effect – people my age were used to thinking of the Taliban as a heroic resistance army, because they fought the Russians and were, therefore, somehow “on our side”. We were also quite ignorant of how divided Afghan society was, so Amir’s puzzlement reflected our own. I still love it though – it’s one of those books that I can bring to mind almost instantly, and it left me with an interest in Afghanistan that I wouldn’t have got from the news reports.

    • Yes, I think we’ve all become such “experts” on the Taliban, ISIS, etc., now, that the shock value is considerably lessened but I could definitely see what an impact the book would have had back then when the Afghanis on the whole were seen as the good and noble victims. Did you read his later book, And the Mountains Echoed? For me, it just had the edge over this one – more emotional impact.

      • Yes, And the Mountains Echoed probably is a better book, but it didn’t have quite the same impact, largely because I knew what to expect, whereas The Kite Runner was a total novelty.

  4. Great review, FF, and I couldn’t agree more about the first and second halves, though I may suspect it was for the same reason you stated. I didn’t want to be pulled into the American experience. I read this a while ago, when it first came out, and I my eyes were opened to the Afghanistan class structure and culture, and I felt authentically transported. His writing is wonderful.

    • I kinda wish I’d read it back then, because I’m sure it would have had more impact on me. I do understand why all immigrants feel the need to write about their experiences, but sadly there are so many of them and, dare I say, their American experiences are all pretty similar. Did you read his later book And the Mountains Echoed? It totally blew me away (which might be why this one didn’t quite – comparisons!) – I started sobbing at page 5 and didn’t stop till about three weeks after I’d finished reading it… 😉

    • The Art of Being a Beast! Wouldn’t that be a fabulous title for a book? You must write it immediately… I shall make space on the TBR! If you get stuck, Tuppence say she’ll give you a few pointers…

  5. I howled my way through And the Mountains Echoed, but The Kite Runner didn’t affect me as much. You might be right about becoming immune to the horrors of that war and also to the ‘immigration experience.’ Your review made me consider different ideas, for example, that Amir idolised Hassan. I remember feeling annoyed by Amir constantly dwelling on his own faults and comparing himself to Hassan.

    • Oh so did I! I started sobbing at page 5 and didn’t stop all the way through! I enjoyed this one but it didn’t have the same impact on me. Yes, I found Amir’s constant self-crticism got annoying after a bit – in real life, I’d have been telling him to stop whining… I’m so hard-hearted! 😉

        • I’ve only read these two so far and agree the more recent one was better – he seemed to have worked out how to keep it feeling like a novel rather than a vehicle for making points, if you know what I mean. And in The Kite Runner he’d occasionally do things like have a big coincidence happen, then explain why coincidences do happen sometimes, which kinda threw me out of the story and made it feel as if he didn’t quite know how to hide a coincidence properly. Don’t think I’ve explained that very well – but basically I felt he hadn’t fully developed the novelist’s skills in The Kite Runner whereas he had by the time he wrote And the Mountains Echoed. Looking forward to reading A Thousand Splendid Suns sometime – have you read it?

          • You explained very well, I think the storytelling was too obvious in The Kite Runner. It didn’t detract from the actual story, but he was obviously learning to write. (Can’t believe I’m criticising this story-teller, when anything other than a review is beyond me). I have read A Thousand Splendid Suns, and what an eye-opener that was. I truly had no idea how lucky I was to be a female, living in this time and in a first world country. Housseini says something along the lines of, if something happens, a woman is always to blame, and so it was in that novel. It led me to And the Mountains Echoed, then I read The Kite Runner.

            • Ha! Yes, but criticising is fun! 😉 Sometimes it just depends which book you start with, I think. Because And the Mountains Echoed was so good, my expectations of The Kite Runner were probably too high. If I’d read it first, I might have been raving about how brilliant it was, but because I was comparing it the later one it very slightly disappointed me. I’ve added Splendid Suns to the TBR, but with the number of review copies I have piled up, I have no idea when I’ll get to it. Must control this NetGalley addiction…

  6. I read this soon after it was published and as well as telling a very human story, it also opened my eyes to a whole area that I knew next to nothing about. I loved it and the story has remained with me ever since. Unlike you I preferred this one to A Thousand Splendid Suns but probably by a fairly narrow margin.

    • I suspect it might depend which order you read these in. Because I loved And the Mountains Echoed so much, my expectations of this one were ridiculously high. If this was my first Hosseini, I suspect I’d have been raving about it much more, instead of feeling it wasn’t quite as good as I’d hoped. By a tiny margin, that is – I do think it’s a great book!

  7. Hosseini seems to be one of those writers whose work gets better–which is wonderful. Your assessment of this book seems very fair. I wondered how you would respond to it.

    • Yes, I think he does! I really noticed a difference in the craft side of his writing between the first and third. But both are great – can’t wait to see where he heads next… 🙂

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