Finished this book about a month ago but it's taken me this long to write a review about it because I have such mixed feelings about it. It was a deeply affecting novel, but mostly not in a good way. I really wanted to like it, but the more I think about what I didn't like about the book, the more it bothers me. I even downgraded this review from two stars to one from the time I started writing it to the time I finished.
Let's start off with the good, shall we? The writing itself was pretty good when it comes to description, in that I really felt the author's descriptions of scenes, and in terms of moving the story forward. That said, it's not particularly challenging writing to read.
The very best part of the novel is its warm depiction of the mixed culture of Afghanistan, and how it conveys the picture of a real Afghanistan as a living place, before the coup, the Soviet invasion, and above all, the Taliban and the aftermath of September 11th created a fossilized image in the US of a failed state, petrified in "backwardness" and locked in the role of a villain from central casting.
Now for the not so good.
== Spoiler Alert ==
... because I don't think I'm going to be able to complain about what I didn't like about the book without revealing major plot points. (Not to mention, some of what follows will only make sense to someone who has read the book.) So if you don't want to spoil it for yourself, read no further, here be spoilers:
My overwhelming emotion throughout the book is feeling entirely manipulated. Of course, one major reason for this is that the author's attempts at metaphor, allegory, and forshadowing are utterly ham-fisted. When he wants to make a point, he hits you over the head with it, hard -- Amir's split lip / Hassan's cleft palate comes immediately, resoundingly to mind.
But I feel manipulated beyond that. The members of the servant class in this story suffer tragic, unspeakable calamities, sometimes at the hands of our fine hero, and yet the novel seems to expect the reader to reserve her sympathies for the "wronged" privileged child, beating his breast over the emotional pain of living with the wounds he has selfishly inflicted upon others. How, why, am I supposed to feel worse for him as he feels bad about what he has done to others? Rather than feeling most sympathy and kinship for those who, through absolutely no fault of their own, must suffer, not just once or twice, but again and again?
Of course this elevation of / identification with the "wounded"/flawed hero goes hand in hand with an absolutely detestable portrayal of the members of the servant class as being at their utmost happiest when they are being their most servile and utterly subjugating their own needs, wants, desires, pleasures -- their own selves, in fact -- to the needs of their masters. (Even when they are protecting their masters from their own arrogance, heartlessness, or downright stupidity.)
I don't see how the main character, Amir, could possibly be likeable. Amir's battle with Assef, momentous as it is, is not so much him taking a stand because he feels driven to do so or feels that he must. Rather, he acts with very little self-agency at all -- he is more or less merely carried forward into events. (And, moreover, in the end it is Sohrab (Hassan again) who saves him.)
I finished the novel resenting Amir, and even more intensely resenting the author for trying to make the reader think she's supposed to care about Amir, more than about anyone else in the story.
A couple other points: I'm wondering if one theme of the novel is that there are no definitive happy endings, no single immutable moments of epiphany or redemption. Because Amir's moral "triumph", such as it is, over Assef, is so short-lived. He manages to crash horrifically only a week or two later, when he goes back on his word to Sohrab about his promise not to send him to an orphanage.
And lastly, I don't understand why Baba's hypocrisy is not more of a theme. He makes such a point of drilling into his son's head that a lie is a theft of one's right to the truth. His own hipocrisy there is a profound thing, and it's a shame the author doesn't do more with it.
Nevertheless, after all the bad things I had to say about it, I do have a couple quotes worth keeping:
"Every woman needed a husband. Even if he did silence the song in her." (p.178)
"'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.'" (p. 232)
=== UPDATE ===I originally posted my review
The Kite Runner in February 2008. Since then, my review has generated a very robust response from other Goodreads members. I have responded a couple of times in the comments section, but I realize that by now, the comments section has gotten long enough that some folks may not realize that I have added some clarifications to my review. So, although the extended reply that I posted in the comments section in October 2008 is still available in the comments section, I am re-posting it here, so people don't miss it.
I also want to offer my continued thanks to those who have read, liked, and/or comment on my review of
The Kite Runner. This kind of back-and-forth conversation on books is exactly why I signed on to Goodreads! I appreciate the feedback, and look forward to engaging in more such discussion.
Finally, one more quick reply. One recent commenter asked how I could have given this book only a 1 star rating, if I was so affected by it. As I replied in the comments, the short answer is that I am guided by Goodread's prompts when I rate a book. Two stars is "It was OK;" 1 star is "I didn't like it." While I have praised a few things about the book, the bottom line is, overall, I didn't like it. -- Linda, 22 July 2011Posted 24 October 2008:
There have been many comments to my review since I first wrote it, and I thought it might be about time for me to weigh in for a moment.
Before I get into my response, I must start off with a great thank you for all those who have felt sufficiently moved (positively or negatively) by my review to comment and respond. I appreciate all the comments, whether I agree with them or not.
First of all, I'd like to address the question of whether we're "supposed" to like Amir or not. Yes, I do realize that sometimes writers create and/or focus on a character that the reader is not meant to like. Here, though, the story is clearly meant to be about some kind of redemption -- but I found Amir so distasteful, that I simply wasn't interested in his redemption. The focus of the story was entirely on how Amir's life had been corrupted by the despicable things he'd done - when the things he'd done were entirely part and parcel of the position of power and privilege he occupied over Hassan.
Which brings me to my second point, the insufferable current of paternalism that runs throughout the story. The members of the servant and poorer classes are consistently portrayed as saintly, absurdly self-sacrificing, one-dimensional characters. Regardless of what terrible things befall them, they are shown to have nothing but their masters' interests at heart. Granted, it may be unlikely that the powerless would be overtly talking back and setting their masters straight; however, the novel gives no indication that they even have any private wishes of recrimination, or much of a private life, for that matter. Given this portrayal, it is even more difficult for me to muster any interest in Amir's suffering. But to suggest that perhaps we're misinterpreting the servants' subservient attitudes because we approach the story from a different time, place, or culture, is simply to engage in a cultural relativism borne out of -- and perpetuating -- the very same paternalism.
To clarify my point, let's look at some comparable examples from US culture. Consider any one of a huge number of films such as Driving Miss Daisy
, Clara's Heart
, Bagger Vance
, or Ghost
(all simply continuing a tradition that reaches back to Shirley Temple's days) in which noble servants or similar helpers have absolutely no concern in their lives other than making sure the wealthy people they are serving have happy, fulfilled lives -- while they themselves never seem to have any of their own personal hopes, desires, triumphs, tragedies, or even any hint of a home, family, personal, or romantic life at all. Their total happiness is bound up entirely with serving the lives of their rich counterparts. It is this quality, present throughout Hosseini's book, that bothers me most.
In the end, however, a beautifully written story could have overcome these criticisms -- or at the very least, I would have been able to temper or counter my points above with lavish praise for the writing. However, here, again, the novel falls flat. It is not particularly well-written. As some other commenters have also pointed out, the storytelling is quite heavy-handed, and the narrative suffers from implausible plot twists and uncanny coincidences, and a writing style that relies far too heavily on cliches and obvious literary devices.
I wish that I could say I liked the book more. To answer [another commenter's] question, I haven't read A Thousand Splendid Suns
; I'm afraid I wasn't particularly motivated to do so after my reaction to this one. However, I do believe, as that commenter also suggests, that there is something to be gained from the debate and discussion that the book has inspired.