The Kite Runner is a strong debut novel that distinguishes itself from from other books on the shelf with its insight into a culture that attracted Western interest following 9/11; and with the extremity of violence it depicts.
The narrator, Amir, reflects on his childhood in 1970s Afghanistan, an idealised world of relative peace and tolerance, of colourful markets and Hollywood movies and kite contests. The son of a wealthy philanthropist, he enjoys a privileged upbringing despite his absent mother and disapproving father. His best friend is Hassan, a sweet natured, hair-lipped boy who happily accepts his lot as servant dictated by his Hazara ethnicity. Their happy childhood comes to an end one afternoon by a violent, harrowing event, and all chance of recovery is obliterated by Amir’s treacherous actions in its aftermath.
After the Russian invasion, Amir and his father flee to America. But when secrets from the past are revealed, he finds himself inescapably drawn back to Afghanistan, now under Taliban rule, to seek out his family, and redemption.
I went into The Kite Runner with high expectations. It’s a best-seller, one of my good mate’s favourite books, and has been on my reading list for years. In the first section, detailing Amir’s childhood, I was underwhelmed.
The prose is of the kind that is most common in modern literary fiction: simple and earnest, with an eye to sensual details, and a complete absence of flair and wit to elevate it above the pack.
The plot, too, seemed a bit paint by numbers. An overbearing father, a dead mother, a loyal best friend, and a childhood destined to end in some formative tragedy. It felt like something I’d read or seen hundreds of times before, differentiated only by its Afghan flavour. I did like, though, that the narrator was somewhat unlikable. His selfishness and arguable cowardice made him a believable kid, as did his retrospective self-loathing.
What bothered me most was the ham-fisted way that the author introduces Afghan culture. Pashtun words frequently and often unnecessarily appear in italics and are then translated or explained in the following sentence, and the lectures on the rudiments of the customs make it feel as if you’re reading a Lonely Planet Guide. This has the effect of dragging the reader out of the story by constantly pandering to a Western audience that has suddenly become interested in the Afghanistan because of the US-led invasion.
Still, I’m probably in the minority in prioritising literary style, and if The Kite Runner fosters a wider understanding of a country that has been in the spotlight for unfortunate reasons, then I welcome it. For all my belly-aching, I definitely learnt a lot.
This first section, though, is all set up for the rest of book, establishing the definitive tragedy that cripples the narrator with guilt, and vividly depicting the idealised Afghanistan that will serve as a contrast in later settings.
I found the story more engaging and original once Amir and his father move to America. The blatant cultural references become less intrusive, the writing less cliche, and the central characters more nuanced.
Things continue to improve as the story progresses, so that by the time he returns to the country of his birth, it becomes clear why The Kite Runner has become a modern classic. Amir’s quest for redemption is gripping, adventurous and exotic without straying into schlocky territory, and the emotional journey is written with sensitivity and skill. The call-backs, contrasts and analysis create a nice, clear character arc that redeems some of the earlier clumsiness. Another thing that sets the book apart are the life or death stakes, and I was repeatedly shocked by the violence and death that suddenly sprang up out of the very personal, middle-class narrative.
There’s a brief stumble in the Hollywood style reveal of the big villain, which is both unbelievable and unnecessary. But the twists and turns along the long road home, and the ambiguous, glimmer-of-hope-ending, redeem any faults.
As the novel was published in 2003, an additional bittersweet note is added by the author’s muted optimism about the ‘War on Terror’, and the rule Hamid Karzai. I wonder if he would have ended the novel with the same optimism with a few more years hindsight.