We've all been told to avoid making mountains out of molehills. I think the inverse is also true: don't reduce mountains into molehills. You can sometimes take a vast and complicated struggle- in this case the troubled history of Afghanistan for the past 100 years - and divvy it up into bite-sized increments, but in so doing you've lost the magnitude of the narrative. Khalid Hosseini, a born storyteller, has written two wildly successful novels about the turbulence in Afghanistan and its impact on those who were able to flee, as well as the harrowing choices for those who stayed behind. In each of those novels, he narrowed his focus to a small group of characters. In telling their stories he delivered valuable insights into the harsh realities of the diaspora and he captured the terror of living in a failed political state. There are echoes of these achievements here, but they are drowned out by the chatter of too many characters, many who remain peripheral because there is insufficient rationale for their inclusion. Jumping around in time and place only adds to the confusion. Much of the dialogue seems stilted, as if they'd learned English as a second language - even among second-generation Americans. He even shifts tenses and moves from third to first person narration for no discernible reason.
To his credit, he touches on the many challenges facing modern Afghanistan. He celebrates the heroic efforts of world-relief organizations, and has little patience for the ambivalence and callousness demonstrated by many Americans. In one memorable incident, an Afghan expatriate first befriends, then abandons a deformed child during a visit to Kabul. We meet a heroin kingpin and his family and learn about his humanitarian efforts in the absence of a strong and unified central government. Hosseini contrasts their narco wealth with the grinding poverty of average people and he demonstrates that security concerns have forced them to live as virtual prisoners. His most enduring message is that kindred ties are difficult - if not impossible - to unwind, and that loving relationships may have nothing to do with kinship. But the overriding problem is that all these anecdotal sketches, as persuasive as they are, amount to a multitude of molehills. And the echo from a molehill is easy to miss - and even easier to forget.