As I get older, I cry more frequently because of fiction. As a young child, apparently I cried at books all the time, so my parents had to skip the ‘sick socks’ page in Dr Seuss, among other things. But as a older child and young adult, I was known for my stoic nature. I never cried at books or films, stating simply ‘I don’t cry at things that aren’t true’. My family tested me on Old Yeller – nothing. I don’t quite know when this changed, but I do now cry occasionally, at a film or more often a book (note, ‘more frequently’ is still more infrequently than most people).
But, ‘And The Mountains Echoed’ is the only book I can think of that has moved me to tears on multiple locations. There is something magic, something kind and whimsical and totally engrossing about this book, which means any little slight, any cathartic moment, sets off a wave of emotion which is almost unheard of with other novels.
This is one of my favourite types of book – novels which move through time and space with intertwined narratives. The earliest stories begin in the 1930s, the latest in the 2000s. All have ties to Afghanistan, few are set there. The protagonists are American, French and Greek, as well as Afghani.
This is a book about memory, and those fleeting moments that change everything. It focuses on moments where we make commitments we fail to meet up to, or promises we live to regret, or tell brief lies, with long consequences. It is about the grey areas in life – the times you think you are making the right decision, which has unintended negative consequences, or vice versa.
“When you have lived as long as I have, the div replied, you find that cruelty and benevolence are but shades of the same colour.”
One of the many things about this novel, is that it is not really a novel about the ‘newsroom stereotype’ Afghanistan. War, warlords, drugs and the desert form the backdrop to the story. The story is about people, who could almost be from anywhere. Occasionally it passes commentary on the outside perception of Afghanistan:
“Women who are admired by some in the west – here in France, for instance – turned into heroines for their hard lives, admired from a distance by those who wouldn’t even bear walking one day in their shoes.”
But quickly moves on, back to the narrative and the characters. This novel evokes characters like few I have recently read. Each one is described in terms so perfect that you can’t fail to form a mental picture of the person who’s tale you are so closely following.
“He had a face right out of film noir, a face meant to be shot in black and white, parallel shadows of venetian blinds slashing across it, a plume of cigarette smoke spiralling beside it. A parenthesis-shaped piece of hair managed to fall on his brow, ever so gracefully – too gracefully perhaps.”
“Mama believed in loyalty above all, even at the cost of self denial. Especially at the cost of self denial. She also believed it was always best to tell the truth, to tell it plainly, without fanfare, and the more disagreeable the truth, the sooner you had to tell it. She had no patience for soft spines.”
You will note I don’t tell you much about the story. This is for two reasons. Firstly, it is a hard narrative to describe, as it swoops agilely across characters, time and space, tying things together gradually. Secondly, and more importantly, because anything I tell you will be somehow ‘giving it away’. This is not a book with one twist, but with a thousand small twists and turns, which I wouldn’t want to ruin for you. Because there is something a little big magic about this novel. Something you have to experience for yourself.