Khaled Hosseini's And the Mountains Echoed begins with a fable that a father tells his two children: A farmer who works hard to eke out a living for his family is forced to give up one of his five children to an evil giant. He and his wife decide to choose randomly, and the unlucky one happens to be their favorite son. Eventually, the farmer, half mad with grief, tracks down the giant and finds his son in a lush garden full of happy children, with no memory of his birth family. The farmer, unable to summon the will to take the child from this place of plenty back to his own arid, desperate land, leaves without him. As a gesture of kindness, the giant gives the farmer a potion that makes him forget he ever had this son.
It's a devastatingly simple story, but it captures the essence of the complex moral equations that Hosseini spends the rest of the novel teasing out. To what lengths should parents go to protect their children from a life of suffering? Is being torn from one's family a better fate than grinding poverty? What acts of mercy do the fortunate owe the less so?
And the Mountains Echoed is Hosseini's most ambitious work yet, its multifaceted story more globe-trotting than his best-selling first two novels, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, and perhaps even more emotionally resonant. If at times some threads of the story don't quite match the heft of the rest, the effect of the whole is both unsettling and moving, right from that opening: The father who tells the tale of the giant is about to give up one of his own children, a boy and girl who have been inseparable since the death of their mother.
Ten-year-old Abdullah stays in their father's small village in Afghanistan, while 3-year-old Pari is adopted by a wealthy couple and eventually taken by her half-French mother, a poet, to live in Paris. Hosseini shows us all the stories that connect to this act like spokes on a wheel. Some of them begin earlier, with the death of the children's mother after giving birth to Pari, and their father's subsequent marriage to a woman with her own load of guilt over family betrayal. But most of the story lines hurtle forward in the aftermath of the family's rupture. The life paths of Pari and Abdullah and a third half-brother, Iqbal, are strikingly different, in ways that underscore not just the randomness of fate but its deep unfairness in a world in which the powerless suffer exponentially more than members of the more fortunate classes.
Hosseini is particularly interested in puzzling out the ways in which more privileged people decide what they can and can't do for those who live in misery. Whether the miserable are members of one's own family is relevant, and yet not the most reliable guideline, since sometimes it's most difficult psychologically to reach out to family members — and since we sometimes don't even know who our family members are. When the Kabul home that belonged to Pari's adoptive parents is abandoned and turned into a hospital, we meet a Greek doctor who has given his life to helping the wretched of Afghanistan, yet is unable to be near his own lonely mother. We also follow the story of two well-off Afghan brothers who grow up near the Kabul house. When they later emigrate to America, each has to decide how heroic a role to play in the never-ending suffering of their native country — and just how much luxury he can stomach in his own life, given the contrast to life back home.
But it's the plight of Abdullah and Pari, living apart yet tied together permanently by the tender, brotherly care he took of her as a child, that holds the novel together. In the tale their father tells, the little boy taken by the giant had always worn a bell around his neck. In old age the father in the story has forgotten the boy, but still sometimes thinks he hears the sound of a bell, and doesn't understand "why a wave of something, something like the tail end of a sad dream, always swept through him whenever he heard the jingling."
You may find, as I did, that Abdullah and Pari's story lingers with an effect not unlike that "wave of something." It's a reminder that much of what both connects us and makes us individuals is invisible, but no less real for that.
Maria Russo, a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review, is a former editor and writer at the Los Angeles Times, The New York Observer, and Salon. She is the editor in chief of Pasadena Magazine.