Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Review | And the Mountains Echoed

I had only a few distracted hours separating between Between Friends and And the Mountains Echoed. It was an abrupt and rather unpleasant transition from Amos Oz's blunt, at times cold writing style to Khaled Hosseini's beautiful, emotion-steeped approach. But to Hosseini's credit, the discomfort quickly faded, and as had happened with his two earlier novels, I soon found myself oblivious to all but the book.

And the Mountains Echoed is fairly good book. I hesitate to call it much more than that, because though I enjoyed it and though I sped through it and though I think Hosseini's writing is excellent and though the story has lingered in my mind the past couple of weeks since I finished it... it's a bit problematic. Structurally speaking it's a complicated book, and in terms of writing it has its stumbles, and there were some issues with the pacing and even a smidgen with the characters. Shall we dissect?

When it comes to its structure, And the Mountains Echoed opts for that oh-so-popular "literary fiction" choice of having a bigger story told through seemingly unrelated (but obviously related) shorter pieces. And the Mountains Echoed is less roundabout in its use of this style (it's obvious from the very start that the stories fit together in terms of characters and story, if not chronology), but it does use various characters to access similar stories from all sorts of angles. This is not my favorite storytelling style, to say the least, but at least it works okay in the book, in large part because of the time jumps Hosseini opts for. The story is linear-not-linear, unfolding in the same way along different threads.

And the Mountains Echoed's strength is in its use of emotions. This is Hosseini's go-to trick, even more than his clear writing. How can our hearts not twinge at watching our characters get torn away from each other, and the twists and turns their lives take until they can, perhaps, hopefully, be united? How can we not feel while reading of loyalty and love, of friendship and family? And the Mountain's Echoed may not have the most clearly defined characters and maybe its story twists a bit too much, but beautiful writing and tugged-at-heartstrings make the book a worthwhile read.

There are some more problems. The non-linear style makes the book uneven, as we try to figure out how each story fits into the larger whole. Some of them are obvious continuations of each other. Others have only thin threads that connect them, but their overall value - their message, their emotional punch, their clear implications on the world at large - makes them worth it. But there are a few that felt weakly attached and too in-your-face with their messaging. Instead of the story flowing seamlessly from one angle to the next, we're forced to make a couple "eye opening" pit stops that really only emphasize the disconnect between the messages Hosseini (perhaps rightly) wants to convey and the natural course of the stories. This also influences the pacing, making the book feel a bit slower and clunkier than it really ought to be, even as the overall impression is one of a clean, flowing novel.

And yet. Come novel's end, I had to completely disengage myself. In the two weeks since I've finished it, I've come back to think over some of its finer moments again, and wonder at its weaker ones. The stories have not slipped my mind, the characters (though not always fully realized) have retained themselves remarkably well, and though I don't feel as though And the Mountains Echoed hit me quite as strongly as Hosseini's earlier A Thousand Splendid Suns did, it's a surprisingly accomplished and rewarding read. Though there will no doubt be readers who dislike the structure even more than I did, and find the characterization wanting, And the Mountains Echoed is a good book, one I can comfortably recommend to many readers.

2 comments:

  1. I found it interesting to read this review. I abandoned it at about the half way point as I found it disjointed and lacking emotion. Perhaps my high expectations were to blame as I loved his other books so much? Glad you found it rewarding, despite the flaws.

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  2. I tend to like the pieces structure, but I prefer how fantasy does it - all the pieces come together for a final showdown!

    I will probably read this one because I enjoy Hosseini's writing.

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