Author: Khaled Hosseini
Finished on: 21 May 2015
Where did I get this book: I have no idea. I don’t think I bought it, so I’m guessing it was a present, or maybe someone leant it to me and I don’t remember (let me know if you’d like it back!) This edition was published in 2008, which is the year we moved to Derbyshire – so I probably acquired it by whatever means then.
It has taken me a month to read this book. I have been working more than usual, been tired more than usual, been helping out with villagey things more than usual – but part of the reason it has taken me so long to get through it is that I have not found it easy to read.
It is almost unbearably sad in parts, and one of the strongest emotions it inspired in me is guilt. This book, while it has some beautiful elements, tells the story of lives that are harder than I can possibly really even imagine. Hardships, limitations, frustrations, injustices that I will never know. Guilt is a difficult, and unpleasant, emotion to feel. And not one that encourages you to pick up a book at the end of a tiring day. Hosseini helpfully provides details of the UN Refugee Agency at the end of the book, so there is a practical option to channel that guilt and do something good by donating money. But it seems a pitifully inadequate response, and this book has made me think about why I love to read, and why in particular I enjoy the books I usually choose to read.
I love stories where terrible, even evil, things happen (I try not to dwell too much on thoughts about why that might be!) But set in worlds that are clearly not the one I’m living in. I want the emotional safety net of things being theoretical. I love stories that explore reality, real emotions and human characteristics. But when horrendous things happen, they’re not happening to actual real people (no matter how much I enjoy the illusion that they are while I read). I want to examine and analyse the extremes of human experience, but the books I enjoy most do this through a lens of separation – whether this be time, or style of writing. When I feel as though characters in a book I’m reading are more important than people I know, it is not because I think they are real, but because I enjoy so much stepping through into that separate world, and inhabiting it with them.
But this book, while it is fiction, is realistically and accurately telling me about lives being lived very much in this world, in my lifetime, only separated from me by the fortune of where I happened to be born.
I really did struggle at points. This is a well written book that draws vivid portraits of some entirely believable characters. The depiction of many aspects of women’s lives under Taliban rule is nothing short of heartbreaking. And when Hosseini brings children into the mix my empathy response went into overdrive; I sobbed my way through whole sections.
At a time when we seem to have hardened our hearts more than ever to the plights of refugees, and many seem to have convinced themselves wholeheartedly that because people come from another part of the world we have no responsibility to give a shit about them, this book comes like a lightning bolt out of the sky. Everybody wants to be loved, and we all want to give our children enough food to eat.
When there are stories on the news of refugees trapped on boats because no country will take them in, and it doesn’t even shock the hell out of us anymore, we need books like this more than ever. Even if it did make me feel guilty that I don’t dedicate my life to helping those less fortunate than myself. It is much easier to harden your heart and think of people from different places as the ‘other’, than it is to face head on the fact that injustice and suffering are being experienced by people just like you, when in the immortal words of that well known philosopher Phil Collins “it’s just another day for you and me in paradise.”
And this book doesn’t allow you to harden your heart. In fact, it softens your heart to the point where it is mush.
I don’t want to give the impression that it is harrowing from start to finish, because that would be misleading. There is a wonderfully moving depiction of a gorgeous female friendship, that most underrated of relationships in much fiction. And several beautiful descriptive passages that read like a love story to Kabul, its landscape, its people and, most enjoyably for me, its food.
But it is true to say that it is not an easy read, not an easy book to pick up at the end of a day when you have worked hard and are tired. But we should. Books like this should certainly be compulsory reading for anyone involved in devising immigration or foreign policy. The rest of us can just donate money to the UN Refugee Agency, maybe treat others with a little bit more tolerance and compassion, and say a huge fat thank you that we are free and our children have enough to eat.
Highly recommended. When you’re feeling strong.