Three-year-old Pari is separated from her ten-year-old brother Abdullah when their father makes a decision which he thinks will improve his family’s future. The novel examines the reverberations of this difficult choice – consequences which are felt far from his small rural village in Afghanistan and for 50 years hence.
Spanning the years from 1942 to 2010 in various locations (Afghanistan, France, Greece and the United States), the novel is really a collection of nine interconnected stories featuring a large cast of characters, some only tangentially related.
The stories set in the past, particularly those of Parwana and Nabi, are the most powerful. The ones set in the present have less emotional resonance. Sometimes there is extensive description of the lives of people who did not engage me emotionally. Markos and Idris fall into this latter category. Nonetheless, what is positive about the characters is that they are all three-dimensional. Most are good, well-intentioned people with flaws. What is striking is that sometimes a character will be viewed in one way because of his/her actions in a scene but being shown that same scene from a different perspective forces the reader to reconsider first impressions. What is also notable is that despite the myriad characters, I experienced no confusion; it is not difficult to remember who is who.
As mentioned, the various characters are related to varying degrees, although all have some connection to Pari and Abdullah. One chapter, for example, focuses on Pari and Abdullah’s stepmother; another, on the Greek doctor who takes up residence in the home inherited by Pari and Abdullah’s step-uncle; a third, on the son of a drug warlord who becomes friends with the son of Pari and Abdullah’s half-brother. There are also other connections, however. All either lose someone or reject/let down someone in some way. Usually this someone is a sibling/pseudo-sibling or a parent. Several yearn for “escape, reinvention, new identities” and unmoor themselves “by cutting loose the anchors that weigh [them] down” (328). Naturally, many of the characters seek redemption for their betrayals. Parwana and Masooma, and Markos and Thalia, and Pari and Nila are obvious examples. Pari perhaps best summarizes the shame and regret many characters feel: “’I did careless things. Reckless things. . . . I should have been more kind. That is something a person will never regret. You will never say to yourself when you are old, Ah, I wish I was not good to that person. You will never think that. . . . It would not have been so difficult . . . I should have been more kind’” (382 – 383).
Readers should be forewarned that not everyone finds a satisfactory resolution. For some it is too late to have a happily-ever-after ending. There are, in fact, several unanswered questions: What happens to Gholam? Does Thierry really reconnect with his mother? This open-endedness may bother some people, but I found it realistic. To have Pari remember an object from her infancy would have been unbelievable.
Early on, one of the characters says, “A story is like a moving train” (74). Reading this sprawling tale is like hopping on a train and encountering various passengers who tell you their stories; some disembark without your knowing what happens to them. Nonetheless, at the end of your journey with this book, you will have a feeling of shared humanity and the interconnectedness of people across time and space. It is definitely a journey worth taking.