For the 26th week of the Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge, I chose And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini.
This 402-page book took me much longer to read than anticipated - both because of its length and because of the nature of the story. I found it to be emotionally-draining to read at times since grief and loss issues permeated so many of the chapters.
There seemed to be a theme with all the characters' life stories: that one's life never is how you anticipate it to unfold. The characters dealt with child abduction, adoption under false pretenses, loss of a sibling and child, violent deaths, physical maiming because of a dog bite, trying to reconnect with a loved one who no longer recognized the person, and memory loss due to dementia/Alzheimer's Disease.
Yet, despite the sadness of each of the stories, they also showed how each person dealt with adversity, overcame it as best s/he could, and how their lives developed despite tragedy.
One thing that was difficult to follow in And the Mountains Echoed was that the author introduced new characters frequently without explaining the connection to other characters. Conceptually, the reader knows that somehow everyone is intertwined and connected with one another, but the relationship between the characters is often not clear until the end of a chapter. The reader is left with a feeling of, "Oh...that makes sense now" and "I wish I would have known how they were related at the beginning of the chapter so I could better understand what I just read."
The parts about caregiving and memory loss were ones that were more poignant for me due to the relevancy to my life. One of the characters, Nabi, was a caregiver to Suleiman. After Suleiman died, Nabi said:
"For a time, I was quite literally at a loss as to what to do with myself. For more than a century I had looked after Suleiman. My daily existence had been shaped by his needs, his companionship. Now I was free to do as I wished, but I found the freedom illusory, for what I wished for the most had been taken from me.
"They say, Find a purpose in your life and live it. But, sometimes, it is only after you have lived that you recognize your life had a purpose, and likely one you never had in mind."
Later in the book, Pari (who was abducted by an uncle so she could be adopted by and live with another couple) has aged from a child to middle-age woman. What is expressed in the book is something that I have thought often, but have never read or heard anyone mention it before. So reading this passage reaffirmed that what I feel must be a shared experience with others...even though it isn't talked about.
The author writes:
"Pari catches a glimpse of her reflection in the plate glass. Normally, especially of late, when she steps in front of a mirror an automatic mental process kicks into gear that prepares her to greet her older self. It buffers her, dulls the shock.
"But in the shop window, she has caught herself off guard, vulnerable to reality undistorted by self-delusion. She sees a middle-aged woman in a drab floppy blouse and a beach skirt that doesn't conceal quite enough of the saggy folds of skin over her kneecaps. The sun picks out the gray in her hair.
"And despite the eyeliner, and the lipstick that defines her lips, she has a face now that a passerby's gaze will engage and then bounce from, as it would a street sign or a mailbox number....It is a little devastating. This is what aging is....these random unkind moments that catch you when you least expect them."
A third passage that resonated with me was when Pari is read the note that her brother, Abdullah, (whom she was separated with as a child and never knew until he was an adult with dementia and they were reunited) wrote to her with the hope that one day she would receive it. He wrote it when he was first diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease - three years before Pari would hear the note read to her. The note began:
"They tell me I must wade into waters, where I will soon drown. Before I march in, I leave this on the shore for you. I pray you find it, sister, so you will know what was in my heart as I went under."
Having watched Alzheimer's Disease affect multiple people on my father's side of the family (my father, uncle, and grandfather), those three sentences took my breath away. That is such an accurate and poignant description of what the diagnosis must feel like, and the knowledge that inevitably the ability to communicate and to connect with loved ones will be lost. Writing things down that are important and that you want others to know is essential.
Despite the challenges with a complex plot and numerous characters that were introduced in rather circuitous ways, And the Mountains Echoed is very touching and emotional. It speaks of life's hardships and the difficult choices one must make. Even deeper, it speaks about how the choices you make now may have a ripple effect - or echo - over time.