This is a sprawling work of sharp contrasts viewed through the long lens of a multigenerational family saga that tracks Afghanistan’s turbulent recent history, dating back to 1952.
It opens with Saboor, a dirt-poor laborer, wandering across the desert with his two children in tow. Abdullah, 10, has a deep attachment to his younger sister, Pari, 3. He comes to view himself as her protector. During the journey to Kabul, Saboor tells his children a frightening tale that portends what is about to happen to his family. Abdullah discovers that his uncle, Nabi, has brokered a deal with the wealthy family who employs him as a chauffeur and cook in Kabul. Saboor must sell his daughter to the Wahdatis so he can get his family through another brutal winter in the desolate village of Shadbagh.
The beneficiaries are Nila Wahdati, a beautiful, but tortured poet, and her wealth husband, who hope a daughter can bring happiness and purpose to their marriage. Alas, it doesn’t happen and when Sulieman suffers a crippling stroke, Nila whisks her adopted daughter to Paris, leaving the devoted Nabi to care for him.
While Abdullah and Pari are the focal point of the novel, Housseini jumps around, both chronologically and in geography, introducing characters with connections to the families. The stories are filled with heartbreak and separation. Iqbal, Abdullah’s half-brother, returns from a refugee camp in Pakistan to reclaim his father’s land in Shadbagh. Iqbal discovers a freedom fighter turned drug lord has built a garish, walled mansion on the property, where his wife and son are virtual prisoners.
A Greek plastic surgeon leaves his family and his wealthy practice to join a medical mission in Kabul to repair the faces of young children who are the victims of violence in the period after the U.S. enters Afghanistan to oust the Taliban.
There are other tales woven into this complex tapestry of love, betrayal, honor and sacrifice. Housseini is a highly skillful story-teller who manages to knit together a complex series of tales that tell a story of the human impact of Afghanistan’s troubled history.