At the beginning of the book, we are in Afghanistan. Saboor is telling his children, Pari and Abdullah, a heart rending fable about a father who, when forced to sacrifice his child, becomes obsessed with finding that child. When he succeeds, he discovers the child is happy and thriving in an environment in which he can grow, prosper and have a promising future. What is a father to do? Does he take the child back and condemn it to a life of poverty and ignorance or does he leave the child behind because of the great opportunity that has been offered, in spite of the enormity of the loss he will face. This theme of abandonment and sacrifice continues throughout the story and the reader may well ask the question, when is it right to expect sacrifice and when is it right to actually be the one who has to make the sacrifice? When is it selfish and self-serving and when is it altruistic? The recurrent theme, in each generation, of filial responsibility, echoed the one before it.
The morning after the telling of the fable, Abdullah watches his father take his sister Pari to Kabul. He follows them, and although he is repeatedly told to return, he refuses and is eventually allowed to go with them. He and his sister are very close. Since the death of his mother in childbirth, Abdullah has been like a parent to her, even though he was just 7 when she was born, She is now 3 ½, and he is 10. Once they are in Kabul, Abdullah discovers the real reason they have gone to Kabul, and the fable becomes more ominous to him. He is filled with sadness at his approaching loss.
Abdullah’s stepmother is Parwana. Once she had a twin sister, Masooma. Masooma was much better looking and better loved. People were drawn to her. Parwana and Masooma were both infatuated with Saboor. While Parwana loved Saboor from afar, Masooma and Saboor, were growing closer. After a tragic accident, instigated by Parwana, Masooma becomes an invalid and Parwena, filled with guilt, devotes her life to her. When Saboor marries another, and is later widowed, he needs a wife and her Masooma tells Parwana to abandon her and marry him. She is entitled to a life.
Parwana’s brother Nabi works in Kabul for Mr. Wahdati. He abandoned his sister in their small village, but sends money to help out. He felt entitled to his life. He knows that his brother-in-law, Saboor, is destitute and he brings him to Kabul to do construction work for Mr. Wahdati, but he had an ulterior motive. Nabi is in love with Nila, who is his Mr. Wahdati’s wife. It is this love, only from a distance, that causes him to suggest that Nila adopt Pari. Nila is often unhappy, bored and lonely. She is unable to bear children. With this transaction, the children are separated from each other and Pari is separated from her father. Her opportunity for a better life is considerable. However, she is so young, her childhood memories are too weak and her own family will pass from her mind.
Abdullah never forgets her. When he is older, he marries and moves to America. He has a child, later in life, and he names her Pari, after his much beloved sister. He often regales her with stories of his sister. Pari often pretends she has a twin, her missing aunt. When her mother grows ill, Pari cares for her and gives up her own opportunity to study art in college. When her father becomes ill, she again abandons her life and gives up her boyfriend to be caregiver to her dad. She has given up a good deal of her dreams and her life for her family. She does not feel entitled to a life or is afraid to venture out. She has been sheltered.
Marcos Varvaris is a plastic surgeon from Greece. His father died when he was very young and his mother, a strong woman, raised him on her own. Her close friend, Madeleine, is a “woman of the world”. She comes to visit them with her daughter, Thalia, whose face is severely disfigured. After his initial discomfort with her appearance, they become great friends. When her mother abandons her, she continues to live with Marcos. When he is an adult, he becomes a plastic surgeon and devotes himself to the injured Afghani children. Thalia devotes herself to Marcos’ mother, as she had devoted herself to Thalia, when she was young. She believes that with her disfigurement, she is not entitled to a normal life.
When Marcos goes to work in Afghanistan, he rents a house from Nabi. They become good friends. He does not charge him rent since he is helping his countrymen. The friendship between Marcos and Nabi is the link to Pari’s past. When Nabi dies, he leaves the house he inherited from Mr. Wahdati to Pari, if she can be found. It provides a letter to Marcos asking him to find her and give her his letter, which is a confession and apology.
Idris and Timur are the children of Iqbal, the half brother of Abdullah and Pari. Once, they lived near Mr. Wahdati, so they also knew Nabi. Timur arranges for plastic surgery on a severely injured child, Roshana. Idris said he would, but he never followed through. Roshi (Roshana), is adopted by the nurse, Amra, who was devoted to her and lobbied for her surgery. In later life, she becomes a writer, and she writes about her experience. Life in Afghanistan is hard. War continues, medical care is virtually non-existent and poverty is rampant, as is corruption and petty rivalries.
Each character exhibits a different aspect of life in Afghanistan and elsewhere. There are recurrent themes of loyalty, devotion, responsibility, sacrifice, guilt and remorse. People struggle to exist, sometimes honestly and sometimes not. The atmosphere of the constant hostilities, the poverty and illiteracy of the people, not in the privileged class, is exposed. The author has really shown the effect of all the invasions and the power plays that have taken place. The cycle never changes. He describes a society in which those who are poor remain poor, remain ignorant, remain pawns in the turf battles around them. Going to America was the salvation for some because they prospered, while war made others rich in the Middle East. The tumultuous, never-ending years of confrontation take a tremendous toll. Humans are subject to the frailties of mind and body, but in the end, everyone grows old and needy. When memories fade, they become superficial and meaningless to some, but they stay alive in the minds of others. Even the town that Pari and Abdullah were born in, changes in the end. It actually disappears, as we do, when we shuffle off this mortal coil. A corrupt soldier knocks down all the dwellings that were on the land to build a monument to himself, a mansion in fact. His son, Adel, discovers his lifestyle is not what he thought it was; he discovers that his father is not a kind benefactor and not the hero he believed he was, but he eventually accepts that, and his life, for the rewards it will bring and the inevitability of his current existence. It was his father, after all, and he will most likely follow in his footsteps.
The story is a study in contradictions and dichotomies. It depicts a clash of cultures, West vs. East. It is a study in contrasts: lies and truths, secrets and confessions, rich and poor, faithful and faithless, honest and dishonest, selfish and unselfish, beauty and ugliness, lush green pastures and dried up gardens, decayed buildings and newly designed residences, morality and immorality, pain and pleasure, but most of all the effect of war and peace on different cultures, advanced and backward.
The story is confusing. I realized how confusing when I tried to organize my thoughts. It is told from the point of view of several characters, and the time and place often jumbled up in my mind. Also, since there were similarities in their lives and sometimes subtle connections to be made, it tended to make some parts repetitious. It felt like there were just too many side stories to keep track of, and the task became tedious as characters appeared disappeared and reappeared long after I could remember their purpose.