My experience with The Kite Runner is almost the reverse of my experience with A Thousand Splendid Suns. Instead of starting dubious and warming up to the book, I started very invested and gradually felt more distant. Khaled Hosseini is skilled at manipulating emotions—but when you strip away this manipulation, what’s left is rather unimpressive. That is to say, while reading The Kite Runner, I was moved. I felt for Amir and his plight and for all the terrible things happening to these characters. In retrospect, however, there are just so many problems with this book.
As a child, Amir is a fascinating character. He has the stereotypical distant father, and hence he yearns for his father’s affection and acknowledgement. Hassan, a Hazara servant, is his constant companion and is totally devoted to him—but Amir perceives Hassan as a rival for his father’s affections. This culminates in a betrayal so cowardly and foul that its repercussions break about servant and master, and Amir regrets it even after he and his father have immigrated to the United States. Watching it happen is heartbreaking: I wanted to reach into the pages and force Amir to be brave, to behave differently, to make things right.
It’s difficult to call Amir likeable—even as an adult he’s more bland than anything else—but as a child he remains a sympathetic character. We all have regrets, because we are imperfect people. Moreover, Hosseini captures that essential truth that the world of children is inscrutable to adults. Terrifying things happen to children that they never communicate to their parents, not just out of fear of reprisal but because they don’t know how to talk about it. These fears compound, necessitating lies and half-truths, poisoning relationships. And then there are the villains, those like Assef, against whom one feels powerless. The scene with Assef at Amir’s party, that veneer of civility after everything that has happened, and Amir’s father’s complete ignorance of the subtext, is chilling.
Villains of childhood are different from villains of adulthood, though, especially when it comes to fiction. When Assef resurfaced later in the book as a member of the Taliban, I almost groaned. He had metamorphosed from a cold, empty child into a caricaturish bad guy. Assef’s casual ethnic hatred is almost sociopathic in its single-mindedness. In childhood this was brutal. In adulthood it makes him a very empty character, which is a disappointing way to portray a confrontation with the Taliban.
I had a lot of praise for the comprehensive way in which Hosseini portrays the successive regimes of Afghanistan in A Thousand Splendid Suns. I’m glad I read The Kite Runner, because it provides an interesting parallel story to the later book. However, as a result of Amir’s long absence from his country of birth, his grasp of the situation is necessarily less nuanced and less fulfilling. This isn’t a book about Afghanistan so much as a book about someone, who happens to be from Afghanistan, returning home to redeem himself for something he did as a child.
Amir’s journey of redemption, from Pakistan into Afghanistan and then back out again, is far less interesting than the childhood that got him to this point. Depictions of the Taliban regime aside, Hosseini succumbs to the temptation for symmetry in Amir’s experiences. For example, there’s the injury he sustains to his lip that mirrors Hassan’s hare-lip from when they were children. It’s a kind of karmic retribution—and it’s very trite. And he goes and rescues an orphan and tries to bring him back to the United States. Meanwhile, he’s left his wife behind and hasn’t called her in weeks—and when he does, she accepts his harebrained scheme to adopt this orphan with an incredible equanimity. There’s a complacency, a sense of biddableness, to Hosseini’s characters that can be unsettling at times.
I don’t mean to convey the sense that the resolution of this novel is too easy or too rosy. Hosseini is never afraid of depicting the challenges inherent in what Amir wants to do, with an American bureaucrat frankly describing how impossible it will be for him to adopt Sohrab. Similarly, when they finally get Sohrab to the United States, he remains a seriously damaged child—as it should be. The road to recovery is a long one, with victories measured in millimetres and moments.
In this sense, Hosseini has a fair grasp of the intricacies of loss and suffering. He also grasps how to show rather than tell, with simple descriptions of characters’ actions standing in for narrating their feelings. He needs these skills in order to manipulate our emotions—but this manipulation is so blatant, such an overt part of the book, that it leaves a bad aftertaste. The Kite Runner is moving, powerful, and probably worth reading. It also lacks subtlety, however, and comes across as very contrived. I can understand why it has affected so many people and become such a recommended book, but at the same time it has flaws that keep poking me every time I try to love it.