Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed and Maurice Mierau’s Detachment: An Adoption Memoir are a perfect pair.
And the Mountains Echoed begins with a story, told by a father to his son and his daughter.
“Father never felt more present to Abdullah, more vibrant, revealed, more truthful, than when he told his stories, as though the tales were pinholes into his opaque, inscrutable world.”
Abdullah recognizes his father as being at ease and in his natural state of being when he is telling stories, but he does not fully comprehend the ramifications of this truth until later in life. Fortunately, And the Mountains Echoed affords readers that perspective, offering a variety of perspectives across time and space.
At the heart of the novel is the quest for love, the kind of love expressed by Shuja, the dog that Abdullah’s sister, Pari, loves completely and unflinchingly.
“He avoided everyone in Shadbagh but Pari. It was for Pari that Shuja lost all composure. His love for her was vast and unclouded. She was his universe. In the mornings, when he saw Pari stepping out of the house, Shuja sprang up, and his entire body shivered. The stump of his mutilated tail wagged wildly, and he tap-danced like he was treading on hot coal. He pranced happy circles around her. All day the dog shadowed Pari, sniffing at her heels, and at night, when they parted ways, he lay outside the door, forlorn, waiting for morning.”
And, yet, the book is equally preoccupied with the other side of love too. “I know now that some people feel unhappiness the way others love: privately, intensely, and without recourse.”
Khaled Hosseini’s third novel is a powerful and resonant tale, and the myriad of voices allows that power to gather and swell until readers feel the story pressing inwards from all directions.
This recent novel does shares some traits with the author’s incredibly successful debut, The Kite Runner, particularly the need to reconcile past events with present reality and a haunting sense of loss which isn’t fully understood by children who inhabit it without comprehension.
And the Mountains Echoed is a more complex work, however, both in terms of the thematic echoes throughout the work and in terms of the breadth and depth of issues explored. Readers who enjoy a solid immersion in a single narrative perspective might prefer Khaled Hosseini’s earlier work more, but those who appreciate layered storytelling will find his latest novel to be a more intensely satisfying story.
Maurice Mierau’s Detachment: An Adoption Memoir is a story told by a father about his relationship to fatherhood and with his two sons.
The first chapter is “Shrinking” and if you chuckle softly at the discovery that it begins in a therapist’s office, you will likely enjoy Maurice Mierau’s writing style.
He does present a lot of difficult emotional material in the work, and events in which many aspects of his own self were also shrinking (e.g. confidence and identity and hopefulness) are discussed at length, which makes for challenging reading, but he is writing at a distance; he has taken a step back to allow for some reflection, some acceptance and, yes, even some amusement.
He and his wife adopted two boys from Ukraine in 2005, when the brothers were five and three years old. Perhaps it is not unusual for new parents to reflect upon their own family history when embarking on raising a family, but adopting young children from the country whose violent past is at the root of your own father’s detachment requires serious contemplation.
Although Maurice Mierau’s personal explorations are tremendously engaging (largely because of the sense that he is willing to expose his vulnerability, unchecked), his own father’s wartime experiences/ — which are mostly shared with the author indirectly, in a familial context — add a considerable heft to the work. Nowhere is the language more spare, more controlled, which only adds to the emotional weight of these scenes.
Family history takes on a fresh importance as the effects of past conflicts and horrifying losses continue to reverberate in later generations. Raw emotion and heart-stopping discoveries make this a demanding story to read, but what sets the work apart is not only the substance but the author’s detachment.
This is facilitated, too, by the sense of being immersed in evaluative processes, not only the therapeutic scenes but the bureaucratic aspects of adoption overseas. And, furthermore, by the fact that more of the narrative plays out in Ukraine (either in the recent past or the distant past) than “at home”, which sets the stage for a different kind of ‘detachment’.
Although the scenes in Winnipeg are solidly sketched too, the sense of being in limbo, inhabiting a series of temporary rooms, simply waiting for the events on the next stage of their lives to unfold, is palpable. Because the voice is consistent and authentic, this seems to accommodate rather than isolate readers. Paradoxically, the journey might feel more inclusive for readers, who are truly distanced from the events, than it may have felt for some of the participants who inhabited them.
While the quality might make for some interpersonal challenges, it is just what a writer needs to produce a resonant memoir: Detachment.