The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Read: 30 January, 2013

Amir grew up in Kabul, Afghanistan, with his father, his servant, and his servant’s son. The two boys grew up without mothers, and they were raised nearly as close as brothers. But soon after the Russians invaded, an event changed both of their lives forever.

The descriptions were wonderful and I feel that I learned quite a bit about Afghani history and culture. In particular, I quite enjoyed the comparisons between the Afghanistan prior to the Russian invasion and the Afghanistan many years later, once it had fallen under the control of the Taliban.

The book is very obviously a fictional account – though it’s written as if it were a memoir, there are several instances of far too perfect resonance  such as the mirroring between the events of Amir’s childhood and his return to Afghanistan as an adult. This would ordinarily be fine, but it felt far too clunky in The Kite Runner, perhaps because the author felt the need to keep reminding his readers about it – “look, look! He has a split lip! Just like Hassan!”

There were quite a few issues in the novel with the treatment of women. Amir acknowledges several times that he “won the genetic lottery” as far as gender is concerned, but he never seems to actually do anything to mitigate this. In fact, again and again, he just seems to make things worse, as when he speaks to Soraya without her father present, knowing and acknowledging that she would be the one to suffer from the gossip that would result.

The descriptions of Hassan and his father, Ali, were disturbing. I realize that they are supposed to be martyrs and that their suffering is supposed to be all the more poignant because of their exaggerated innocence, but the fact that they are also members of the servant class makes this problematic. They are Perfect Servants, knowing exactly what their masters want at all times (even to the point of what appears to be mind reading), and are utterly self-sacrificial (literally, in Hassan’s case) in serving their masters. And this is presented as a mutual relationship, in which both Hassan and Amir are at their happiest when the former is serving the latter.

I also had some issues with Amir’s absolution. I don’t want to give too much away, but basically he has to perform a task in order to “make right” with Hassan. Thing is, he never really performs that task. He takes a beating, realises that he feels wonderfully sin-free, and then the task performs itself. It’s a very odd, impotent sort of cleansing.

The last issue I had with the book is possibly the greatest one. Amir essentially gets custody of a child who has been through some pretty horrific experiences, including sexual abuse that has lasted for at least a month. His first reaction to this is to keep touching the child (despite the child’s obvious reticence) until the child finally starts submitting. After some more stuff happens, he just kinda lives with the child and waits out the “issues” until, in a big redemptive moment, the kid may or may not begin to smile again. Yay, right? Except that at no point does he mention getting professional help for this child. I’m sure that there are refugee support groups or at least therapists who specialise in sexual abuse who may be able to help. But no, it’s just something that the child is expected to get over on his own. It left me with a really bad taste in my mouth for Amir and his wife, as they are this child’s sole lifeline and they seem so utterly oblivious to his needs.

Despite all the issues, I did really enjoy the book until Amir leaves the hospital after his “redemption.” At this point, his total inadequacy in caring properly for the child just made me angry.

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The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Read: 29 December, 2012

Esthappen has been re-Returned to the house in Ayemenem, and his two-egg twin Rahel is there to meet him. Years have passed since the Terror and the tragedy of Sophie Mol’s death, but the wounds are still fresh.

The narrative bounces all over the place. The “now” takes place when Esthappen and Rahel are adults, but they are children through much of the book, and the narrative flows around them and other characters, giving each a biography in turn, so that the timeline encompassed is actually about a century long. Despite this, it was surprisingly easy to follow once I had a grasp of the general outline.

The writing style is heavily focused on the senses, so that very few things or people are mentioned without lengthy sense-based comparisons. It’s all rather poetic, and I found it quite interesting to follow – particularly when these comparisons are used to link people and events.

The centre of the story – Sophie Mol’s death – is revealed from the beginning, but the details are danced around through the whole novel. I found it rather frustrating, since the event is brought up again and again throughout, but what the event really was or what it meant is withheld until the very end. On the other hand, the climax revelation was far more effective once I’d come to know the whole cast of characters.

I found the writing style to be quite beautiful, though I often found myself carried away by the cadence of it and forgetting to absorb the meaning – though fatigue may also have had something to do with this.

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Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Read: 2005

Piscine Molitor Patel (known to all as Pi Patel) is the son of a zoo owner. He’s an exceptionally bright young man and shows his maturity quite clearly when it comes to religion. He’s a Muslim, a Hindu, and a Christian, all at the same time. But soon, political discontent drives his family out of India and towards Canada. The zoo is sold, the bags are packed, and the whole family (including several animals on their way to American zoos) board the Tsimtsum, a Japanese cargo ship with a Taiwanese crew.

“The ship sunk,” begins Part II. From that point on, this is a story of survival against amazing odds. Not only does Pi Patel survive 227 days in the Pacific Ocean, but he does it in the company of an adult male Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

The thing I love most about this book is the fact that you can read it once and interpret the story one way, but then you can read it again and see everything differently. The revelation of Part III is certainly really good food for thought. There’s the literal interpretation of seeing the boy on a life-raft with a tiger. Then there is the alternative story given at the end of the boy on a life-raft struggling with his inner beast while trying to keep his humanity. Then, of course, there’s the third possibility that the entire story is complete fiction and is just about a boy maturing and struggling with the different influences in his life. It’s easy, especially as an English major, to really read too far into books and see things that just aren’t there. But I think Yann Martel makes it quite clear that all three of these interpretations are intentional. Heck, he even gives us two of them up front!

Another thing I loved about the story was the three part system. Part I deals with introducing Pi and the society he is coming out of. I found that what I read in Part I really brought Pi to life and let me identify with him enough that I really cared about what happened to him in Part II. I had bonded with him enough that when he suffered in Part II, I suffered as well. When he started to lose touch with his humanity (like when he suddenly notices that he’s eating like a tiger), I really feared for him. Thank goodness Part I ends with the message: “This story has a happy ending.” I think it would have been very difficult and painful to read otherwise. Part II is his struggle on the raft. Part III is his interview in which he explains what happens. I found this to be a really important part. It’s also a very interesting part in its function. It serves not only to ridicule the idea that the concept of the book (a boy surviving that long in the pacific with a tiger) is preposterous, but also serves to introduce a whole new perspective and the possibility that none of it might have happened at all (I mean that within the book’s fictional world).

Several people I have spoken to have said that the transition is too abrupt. Of course, it would have to be since that’s exactly what it was for Pi Patel: abrupt. But I’ve heard many times that there’s too much character development at the beginning to wade through before getting to the meat of the story. To each her own, I suppose.

One final fantastic point I just want to bring up in relation to the two possible stories offered by Martel is the idea that the more interesting story is more important than the story that is true. So that’s what Martel leaves us with: “Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?” Which is more important to you, a good story or the truth?

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The Beetle by Richard Marsh

Read: 2004

As wikipedia puts it, The Beetle is a xenophobic story about an evil oriental antagonist wreaking havoc about London with his powers of hypnotism and shape-shifting. Unfortunately, I don’t remember too many of the plot details as it’s been about two years since I’ve read it.

I do remember enjoying the novel quite a bit, though. I’ve always enjoyed the use of multiple narrators and the suspense is well-maintained from begining to end. The only flaw, and, unfortunately, its a real doozy, is the ending. The tension mounts and mounts and the climax builds and then BAM! Train crash! Damsel saved and evil guy killed! How disappointing…

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