The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini [Review]

I finished reading this book a little over a fortnight ago and I’ve known since then that I wanted to write about it, because reading it was an experience that I am eager to explore and share.

The Kite Runner is a bildungsroman published in 2003, charting a journey to adulthood that begins against the complicated political backdrop of 1970s Afghanistan. The story revolves around Amir, the son of a well-respected man in Kabul, and Hassan, his best friend and servant. As you can imagine, they have an occasionally problematic relationship due to their vastly differing status. Despite this, they are inseparable until a harrowing act drives a wedge between them and shapes their lives (and the course of the book) thereafter. The distressing scene containing the aforementioned act also earns this book a spot on the list of many books banned by a number of American high schools.

As a side note, on considering the lists of banned or most-challenged books by the American Library Association, I have come to the conclusion that some of the greatest and most influential books of all time reside on these lists. This book deserves its place among the greats – though like many of the greats, not to be banned, but the extreme conservatism of some American library users is another story entirely.

The closeness of Amir and Hassan presents them almost as two parts of a whole. As a reader you are frequently reminded of their closeness by the constant referral to the fact that they shared a wet-nurse as children. Their closeness shows up the stark differences between them too: while I felt Amir’s pain that his father seems to give so much more attention to Hassan (who, in Amir’s eyes is ‘only a servant’ making this an injustice that he inwardly questions regularly) I couldn’t help myself also choosing Hassan over him. He may be a low-status servant boy, but he is presented from the start as pure, good and just. Some tougher-minded critics could easily take a disliking to him for how saintly he comes across. Even after a shocking betrayal he remains true to himself and cannot bring himself to bear a grudge, something that remains on Amir’s mind as he grows up and attempts to move on with his life.

The Kite Runner is not an epic novel, at 324 pages in the edition I own, but for the richness of its descriptions you might be forgiven for thinking that it must be. The characters are fleshed-out and developed over the course of the book. Their complexity and individuality makes it immensely easier to recall them all when they reappear after hiatuses. I discovered as I went along that there are so many plot points in this book, and I worried that this onslaught of events might mean I would forget what and who was important. But the intricacies of character woven around the story made this impossible. This is an unforgettable book. Equally impressive is the description of settings: I could see them clearly in my mind, which surprised me at first as I have absolutely zero working knowledge of Afghanistan beside brief images from the news over the years.

Hosseini is a talented writer for sure, shown by my third example: the effortless contrast between scene types. At the opening of The Kite Runner we see childhood innocence at its finest, not unlike the early part of To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. There follow tense, emotional and dangerous scenes and each one is handled with care and the precision required to construct it perfectly in the mind of the reader. Not for nothing do the high-status reviews of this story choose language such as ‘unforgettable’ and ‘heartbreaking.’

I’m wary to describe this book as eye-opening: awareness of sensitivity around discussion of race and culture is something that I’m mindful of. Having moved through different social media platforms during my teenage years I’ve seen multiple times the consequences of not being mindful of what you say. Tumblr stands out strongly in my mind to that end, but even a community of educators on twitter can turn into a huge pile-on in a heartbeat, something I (for the umpteenth time) witnessed only this week. Reasonable discussion, raising questions and being anything less than perfectly educated on a topic don’t always lead to the internet being kind! But I will persevere, carefully aware of my privilege as a White British, straight, university-educated woman.

Even as a twenty-two year old, my mental images of Afghanistan are shaped by the news broadcasts of my childhood, despite an awareness that every news story has more to it than what the camera chooses to show and the journalist chooses to say. A Google image search doesn’t help – searching ‘Afghanistan’ only enforces the potentially widespread view that there is nothing but war there. Reading this book though, made me dig a little deeper.

This is not the image of Afghanistan my mind instantly conjures up… seair21/Flickr

Hosseini uses lived experience to add to the literarily-underrepresented refugee voice, in charting Amir’s journey with his father to California. The passages about this journey are darkly riveting and point out something that I had an awareness of but no proper understanding. (And I’m not going to claim that I have anywhere near a full understanding now.) Refugees don’t want to be refugees, their journeys can be truly awful and their experiences on arrival nothing like what they had dreamed of. But all of that is still better, and safer, than what they are leaving behind. At least, that is the understanding I have formed so far.

There is so much need for diverse voices to be heard in literature. It shouldn’t be the case that you can grow up with a fixed image of a country and a whole people, without ever seeing the bigger picture. I guess holding that opinion is part of how I ended up in the profession that I’m in. Reading The Kite Runner is only a tiny part of exploring the world through the pages of a book, but it’s a part that I won’t regret. It’s one of those books that I wish I could read again for the first time, to feel everything that I felt entirely afresh.

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