The Kite Runner–Khaled Hosseini (2003)

Hosseini, Khaled.  The Kite Runner.  Riverhead Books, 2003.  371p.  Grades 11-12.  Realistic Fiction.

Spanning the decades and continents between 1970s Afghanistan and post-9/11 America, this gritty novel tells the story of Amir, a young Afghan boy, focusing heavily on his fraught relationship with his father, Baba, and the complicated ties that bind him to a young family servant, Hassan.  Told in first person from Amir’s point of view, it follows him from his pampered childhood in Kabul through his flight from war-torn Afghanistan to his life as an immigrant in California and eventually full-circle to the 21st century Middle East.  A compelling coming-of-age story interwoven with a realistic portrayal of Afghan culture and history, The Kite Runner gives readers a glimpse into not only the social and political issues of  the Middle East but also puts a very human face on the tragedies, resilience, and universal stories found there.

Thoughts- For me, this book was kind of a mixed bag of positives and negatives.  On the one hand, I found it beautifully written and evocative; the sense of place Hosseini creates is extraordinary.  I loved learning about Afghan culture, both how it was expressed in Afghanistan itself and how the immigrants to America managed (or didn’t manage sometimes) to preserve that heritage here in the States.  Additionally, I found the characters to be very finely drawn, and I appreciated how fleshed out and complex they were—characters like General Taheri or Rahim Kahn, who could easily become stereotypes, were given intricacies of personality and back story that I found compelling and realistic.  I also thought the subplot involving Amir’s wife, Soraya, was refreshing in such a unrelentingly grim book as was the awareness of how very male the story had been up until that point—Amir, and through his narration the reader, were so very steeped in the masculine worldview up until that point that the introduction of Soraya brought, in my opinion, a necessary alternate perspective.

On the other hand, I found this book to be almost impossibly bleak.  Truthfully, I had avoided reading it for the past ten years for just this reason, and I’m still not sure if I would recommend it to other readers.  I definitely cannot say that I “enjoyed” it.  I found it compelling and honest and brutal but not enjoyable.  After a lot of reflection, I think some of my feelings stem from personal reading preferences/prejudices—feelings that were good to examine and confront; however, some of it I still think has to do with the narrative voice and plot of the book itself.  I had an extremely difficult time connecting with Amir; it wasn’t just that I didn’t really like him, but I also kept wondering how trustworthy he was.  I think in the end he did prove to be a trustworthy narrator, but those nagging questions from the early pages of the book still lurked for me.  As for the plot, my main issue was with the return of the character of Assef and his sexual assault of not just Hassan but also Sohrab.  I know that Hosseini set up that particular twist through Amir’s interaction with the old street beggar who turned out to know his mother (“Walking back to the truck, neither one of us commented about what most non-Afghans would have seen as an improbably coincidence…we both knew that in Afghanistan, and particularly in Kabul, such absurdity was commonplace.”), but I still felt totally manipulated when Assef turned out to be the man in the sunglasses.  From that point forward, things felt less realistic to me, and I was less invested in the story.  Also, the implied rape of Sohrab and his suicide attempt just felt like too much to me—by that point, I was so emotionally overwhelmed that all I wanted was to get to the end of the book.

Despite all the thinking and discussing of it that I’ve done over the past few days, I’m still torn about what exactly I would do with The Kite Runner.  As a librarian, I totally think it is appropriate for a high school library, and I think it definitely would have a readership.  It could be the right book for the right student, but I think it would take a markedly mature, thoughtful reader to handle it.  With that in mind (and knowing that some AP classes do teach this book), I think the only classroom I would be prepared to teach this in would be an Advanced Placement junior or senior class, and even then I might have hesitations just due to the difficult nature of some of the subject matter.  It’s hard sometimes to discuss Hamlet’s suicidal tendencies, much less those of a 10 year old who has been bought like chattel and abused.  I also worry that maybe it’s not quite as good as some of the other equally harsh books currently in many schools’ curriculum, namely Night and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  Possibly it is the fiction versus non-fiction issue I am struggling with here, I am not really sure.

PS.  I read this book in January, and I still have yet to decide how I really feel about it.

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