The Kite Runner is one of those books which is by no means an easy read, but which I’d urge you all to read anyway. It’s extremely powerful, but also extremely distressing. If you’re looking for a nice romp of a story, this is one hundred per cent not the book for you. It has sexual abuse and rape of children, suicide, bereavement, torture, executions, and basically a lot of brutal violence, but it’s also the most compelling story, set in a country being torn apart.
I’m going to try to keep the plot summary brief, but it’s going to be hard because there’s a lot going on. There’s a lot that’s important to the whole plotline as well, so I’ll warn you now this bit is going to be VERY spoilery.
The book is divided into three sections. The first section is about the childhood of Amir and Hassan in Afghanistan, specifically Kabul. The pair are inseparable, but they are not equal. Hassan and his father Ali are the servants of Amir’s father Baba, because Amir and Baba are Pashtuns but Ali and Hassan are Hazaras. (This book has certainly made me aware of my complete ignorance about the entirety of this culture and its history, and this ethnic divide is something that I knew nothing about). It’s an uneven friendship. Hassan almost hero-worships Amir but Amir, though very fond of Hassan, won’t admit to being his friend to the other children because he would be mocked for being friends with a Hazara boy. Instead, he reaffirms Hassan’s position as Amir’s servant. Rather than teaching Hassan how to read, Amir mocks him for his lack of learning by making up word meanings and changing stories, and yet Hassan always defends Amir when he’s challenged by older boys. It’s a really interesting relationship because I’m sure Amir really is great friends with Hassan, he hates to see him upset by soldiers making comments about his mother and they do seem inseparable, and yet there’s something about him that seems to embarrass Amir; it says a lot for Hassan’s loyalty that he is willing to overlook this and do so much for Amir anyway (and by ‘so much’ I’m not referring to his duties as Amir’s servant, but purely on a friendship basis).
Amir is desperate to make his father proud, but Baba despairs of Amir’s lack of ‘manliness’ (for want of a better word) and seems to favour Hassan. Amir knows that winning the final kite during the kite flying contest will make Baba proud, but he needs Hassan to help him. Luckily Hassan is the best kite runner and sets off to retrieve the kite for Amir, but he is raped by an older boy when he refuses to give up the kite, knowing how much it means to Amir. Amir witnesses this but doesn’t intervene, because he wants to be able to bring back the kite. Later, Amir is so ashamed by what he did that he drives Hassan and Ali away, by hiding money under Hassan’s bed and pretending he stole it.
In the second part, Amir and Baba flee to America to escape the violence and unrest in Afghanistan. They become part of a small Afghan community in America, although their wealth and status is greatly reduced. Baba is diagnosed with terminal cancer, but lives long enough to ask permission for Amir to marry Soraya, and dies shortly after the wedding.
In the third section, Amir returns to Afghanistan by request of his father’s closest friend Rahim Khan, who is dying and has a way for Amir to redeem himself. Rahim Khan informs Amir that Hassan has been executed and his son, Sohrab, taken to an orphanage. It is up to Amir to rescue Sohrab, and try to bring him back to America.
That’s the basic gist of the story, it’s quite involved because it spans a few decades during a pretty turbulent period. I’m not going to lie, there were times when I found this extremely hard to read, and there was definitely a point where I wondered if I’d be able to pick it up again. I was so furious with Amir and his treatment of Hassan that I couldn’t carry on reading for several weeks. I’ve never been angrier with a book character in my life. He punished Hassan for suffering the most awful abuse, for something that was in no way Hassan’s fault, just to try to make himself feel better for not doing something about it. If Amir existed as a real, living person and materialised in front of me, I’d have beaten him up myself. It was despicable behaviour; he drove Hassan away, and his eternal punishment is the fact that it was the last time he’d ever see him, so he couldn’t possibly make it right. Even saving Sohrab doesn’t make it right, because Hassan wouldn’t know about that. And what makes the whole thing worse and so unbearable for me is the fact that Hassan forgave him. Before he died he wrote Amir a letter, a happy letter, about his wife and his son, reminiscing about their childhood together. He made the first move to redeem their friendship, and then he was executed for defending Amir’s childhood home. It’s so unbearably unjust, I really do find it quite upsetting. I was so desperate for Hassan to have a happy ending.
I will reiterate that there is a lot of violence in this book, and some of it is quite prolonged. Assef’s beating of Amir for example, and his stoning a couple to death in the football stadium. It’s a dark book, but the story’s so absorbing and, from what I can make out, not that far removed from what was actually happening in Afghanistan. Khaled Hosseini has spoken in interviews about the friends and family left behind when his family emigrated to France and America, and how some of them were executed or simply disappeared under the new regime. There were public executions and violence on a large scale, and I think that makes it more important that everyone reads this book. Obviously a large element of it is fictionalised, but if you’re like me and my kind of age you probably have no awareness or understanding that such divides and violence was happening, or that it was happening in this way/on this scale. What’s really interesting is Khaled Hosseini’s response to the criticism The Kite Runner received by Afghan American readers for its portrayal of the Pashtun/Hazara divide – “They never say I am speaking about things that are untrue. Their beef is, ‘Why do you have to talk about these things and embarrass us? Don’t you love your country?’”
The Kite Runner has been made into a film, and I’ll include the trailer here so you can make up your own mind, but this is not a film that I wish to see. I found it hard enough to read some of the things that were happening in this story, I really don’t think I want to see them played out in front of me. In terms of a book adaptation it’s been praised, however it was not received well in Afghanistan, and the child stars actually had to be ‘relocated’ to the United Arab Emirates because they received death threats for their roles in making the film and the images they portrayed (the rape scene in particular was very controversial).
I would absolutely recommend this book to everyone, with due warning for upsetting content. It’s so powerful, and there were elements of it that will stay in my mind for a very long time, and I’m not just talking about some of the nastier stuff. I mean the comforting images – heart warming scenes of Amir and Hassan carving their names into tree trunks and running kites, going to the cinema to see westerns and pretending to be American heroes. It’s a very complex book with many layers to the story, and I think it continues beyond the final word on the last page. There is a level of redemption and there is a kind of happy ending, and the hints we’re left with in the very last scenes of the book suggest to me that happiness keeps coming, that progress is made with Sohrab, and that everyone’s lives are changed for the better. That’s how I like to complete the story anyway.