The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Aamer Hussein is entranced by a first novel of shame, honour, revenge and American exile
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Kabul in the mid-1970s: Amir is growing up as part of an odd ménage with his liberal father, a family retainer called Ali, and the latter's son, Hassan. Amir's playmate at home, Hassan must, in public, be treated with a degree of disdain. Not only a servant, he is from the despised Hazara minority, while Amir belongs to the Persian-speaking Pashtun élite. There are no women present. Amir's mother is dead; Hassan's has abandoned him.

A tale of shame, honour and revenge unfolds. Hassan is persecuted and physically abused by one of Amir's rivals, a half-German Pashtun. Amir, unable to deal with the burden of his guilt as witness to his friend's disgrace, betrays Hassan and becomes the cause of his exile from the only home he has ever known. Afghanistan is now in turmoil. When the Russians take over, Amir and his father, too, are compelled to leave. Via Pakistan, they arrive in California.

The first section of this novel combines the tones of memory and nostalgia with a desire to recreate a lost world. A child's fresh perspective is interleaved with frequent and detailed social commentary, revealing an unknown culture poised between often ruthless tribal laws and a tentative modernity. Khaled Hosseini's apparent wish to memorialise occasionally leads him into didacticism; to his credit, the documentary elements don't overwhelm the personal, nor does he exoticise the lost country of the past. In theme, if not in execution, The Kite Runner is reminiscent not so much of The God of Small Things - which Hosseini has cited as an influence - as of those classic European novellas of innocence bruised by experience.

Moving to America for the second part of the novel, Hosseini finds his authentic voice. Amir and his father's experiences are recounted with economy and compassion. Instead of dissertations on exile and dispossession, we have vivid vignettes of an entire culture striving to re-route and transplant itself with varying shades of success. The eccentricities of an erstwhile élite, now teetering on the outer edges of bourgeois respectability, are evoked with affection and humour. Although the book's shortest section, this is in many ways the most compelling.

While his father falls into expat oblivion, Amir manages to achieve his childhood ambition of becoming a writer. Amir also falls in love with the gentle Soraya. They marry. But the cries of the past don't cease to resound: Amir is summoned to Afghanistan to look for a lost child ...

The novel changes key again, dramatically, in its third and longest section. We follow Amir as he pieces together the destinies of Hassan and his family. Investigating questions of shame, guilt and honour, he exposes many of his childhood's certainties as lies and deceits. Through the gift of his relationship with the "lost" Hazara child, Sohrab, he links himself to the lives of Hassan and his father - and the history of Afghanistan and its many warring peoples.

To uncover the mysteries of the plot would dilute the power of a book that, in its final stages, has the impact of a political thriller. But there is much more to The Kite Runner: an epilogue of shattered reconciliation and guarded hopes for Afghanistan's future, Amir's return to the practice of a gentle, non-fundamentalist Islam, the aftermath of September 11. The pace is uneven and so, at times, is the prose: but Hosseini's ability to reach the core of experiences of love and loss places him in the company of such fine chroniclers of the new America as Chang-Rae Lee. The Kite Runner is a first novel of unusual generosity, honesty and compassion.

Aamer Hussein's short-story collection, 'Turquoise', is published by Saqi