Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg

Read: 26 November, 2018

Taking place in the Soviet Bloc in the 80s and 90s, this is a collection of semi-autobiographical sketches that show life in rural Poland from the perspective of a child. It was interesting to brush up against big political events, like the Pope’s visit or martial law, from a perspective that doesn’t really understand and isn’t particularly interested in trying to.

As a main character, Wiola has a powerful inner life, translating her environment into quasi-mystical interpretations that sometimes seem to have stepped straight out of a fairy tale story (such as the locked door in the seamstress’s house that takes on Bluebeardian significance).

Given the setting, this perspective makes for an interesting combination of whimsy and darkness, particularly when the story touches on themes like child molestation, drug use, and accidental murder.

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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