The book begins with a bedtime story. A horrifying bedtime story for Abdullah, age 10, and his sister Pari, age 3. They beg their father for a story and finally he gives them one. It is the tale of a div, a supernatural being who lives in the mountains of Afghanistan and periodically comes to take a child from their village.
In the story that the father tells, there lives a family of a man and woman and their five children in a village. They are very happy. The man loves all his children but the greatest joy of his life is the baby of the family, his youngest son, a three year old boy.
One night, the most dreaded terror of all occurs. The div comes to the village and, of all the village families, it chooses this happy family and tells the parents that they must give it one of their children. They must choose which one. They have until morning to make the choice or they will lose all.
The anguished parents cannot decide, but finally, in desperation, they write the name of each child on a rock and mix the rocks all together. Then the father reaches out to take one. When he looks at the name on the rock he has selected, he is devastated. It is his baby, his best-loved child.
When morning comes, the parents keep their bargain with the div, they give it one child to save all the others. The div takes the child away to the mountains.
Months go by and the father grieves. Finally, he can stand it no longer and determines to go to the mountains and take back his child. He makes it to the div's stronghold and is rebuffed by the being, but when it comprehends the father's anguish, it takes pity on him and takes him to see his son. He is not able to touch him or talk to him, but he can see him playing with other children. He is well-dressed, well-fed, and happy. He will grow up to be an educated man and go into the world to help his people.
The div sends the man back home, but not before giving him a potion to drink along the way, one that will erase his memory and ease his pain.
We wonder how this story will have significance for the 350 or so pages to follow, but we soon learn that it is very relevant.
The day after telling the story, the father takes Abdullah and Pari to Kabul. He tells them that he has a job there. He had only intended to take Pari, but Abdullah follows and makes such a fuss that he relents and allows him to come, too.
It turns out there is no job. The man is taking Pari to Kabul to sell her to a rich couple. The payment that he receives will sustain him and the rest of his children and wife, the stepmother of Pari and Abdullah. The transaction takes place. Pari and Abdullah scream and cry and fight at being parted, but ultimately Pari is left with the family in Kabul and Abdullah returns home with his father.
What follows then are several chapters that give takes on this sad story from the perspective of the ever-widening circle of people who are affected by it. We learn about the step-uncle who worked for the family in Kabul and who watched over them and his niece. We meet NGO humanitarian agency doctors and nurses who have come to war-torn Afghanistan to treat the victims of the conflict there. We meet Afghan-American tourists deeply affected by the plight of the less lucky Afghans who have been left in their home country and we are appalled at some of their actions - or lack of action.
That one transaction, made in anguish by a father trying to save his family, will have ripple effects in and implications for the lives of so many people who would never really know of it or know what part it had played in their own lives. But, in the end, all of their stories are connected. It all holds together.
I loved this book! I felt connected to it from the first few pages. It is a story with heart and empathy about a people who have endured so much tragedy and heartbreak and yet who retain their essential dignity. But it is really a universal story. It could be set almost anywhere in the world. I had read both of Khaled Hosseini's previous books set in Afghanistan and enjoyed both of them, but this is definitely my favorite.
This story stretches all the way from Kabul and the villages of Afghanistan to Paris, Greece, and, finally, San Francisco, but everywhere it goes, it is about family relationships and how we love and take care of those closest to us and what we owe not only to parents, children, and siblings but also uncles, aunts, cousins, and all those with whom we share blood. It is a multigenerational story about how decisions and choices made today can resonate and affect future generations.
This is an emotionally powerful and complex novel. There is much to think about here and I feel sure I will be thinking about it for a long time to come.
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