The producers of The Jewel in the Crown ought to take a close look at this one.


The first Afghan War of 1839 (the English tried and failed to displace a potentate unfriendly to its colonial ambitions) is the subject of this fascinating US debut.

Well-known British novelist and journalist Hensher introduces with considerable flair a dauntingly large cast of characters in England and Kabul, with sidetrips to India and Russia, in a flexible omniscient narrator’s voice that frequently underscores his story with pointed sardonic commentary. The most prominent among them include Alexander Burnes, a dashing writer-adventurer lionized in London when his popular Travels into Bokhara and Cabool makes a reigning expert on those far-off lands indispensable to his government; Bella Garraway, the spirited girl who bears Burnes a son, and is thereafter consigned to “seclusion” at her family’s country estate; and Amir Dost Mohammed Khan, the cunning ruler whose “Napoleonic mind” enables him to play off British strategies against those of Imperial Russia, which also has vested interests (and numerous carefully positioned “agents”) in Afghanistan. Hensher surrounds them with literally dozens of other figures whose experiences embody irreconcilable contrasts between the luxuriant exoticism of the East and the brisk pragmatism of the West—contrasts that are, paradoxically, recognized as inherently simplistic clichés, and noted with urbane irony. Introverted military man Charles Masson, a victim of sexual violence who becomes an itinerant avenging angel, evokes the figure of T.E. Lawrence as vividly as Burnes (whom he’ll meet, in several crucially revealing late scenes) suggests that of the demonic globetrotter Richard Burton. Two matching “bores,” British army officers McNaghten and Elphinstone, are deftly employed both to comment on their country’s adventuring and to embody its ghastly consequences. The scheming Amir’s equally amoral favorite son Akbar, the elegant sadist Shah Shujah, and cultivated, Balzac-loving Russian “explorer” Vitkevich all figure importantly in the catapulting events that lead to the rousing and harrowing climax: the bloody siege of Jalabad, and its sorrowful aftermath.

The producers of The Jewel in the Crown ought to take a close look at this one.

Pub Date: Sept. 3, 2002

ISBN: 0-375-41488-6

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2002

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.


The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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Rather than settle for a coming-of-age or travails-of-immigrants story, Hosseini has folded them both into this searing...


Here’s a real find: a striking debut from an Afghan now living in the US. His passionate story of betrayal and redemption is framed by Afghanistan’s tragic recent past.

Moving back and forth between Afghanistan and California, and spanning almost 40 years, the story begins in Afghanistan in the tranquil 1960s. Our protagonist Amir is a child in Kabul. The most important people in his life are Baba and Hassan. Father Baba is a wealthy Pashtun merchant, a larger-than-life figure, fretting over his bookish weakling of a son (the mother died giving birth); Hassan is his sweet-natured playmate, son of their servant Ali and a Hazara. Pashtuns have always dominated and ridiculed Hazaras, so Amir can’t help teasing Hassan, even though the Hazara staunchly defends him against neighborhood bullies like the “sociopath” Assef. The day, in 1975, when 12-year-old Amir wins the annual kite-fighting tournament is the best and worst of his young life. He bonds with Baba at last but deserts Hassan when the latter is raped by Assef. And it gets worse. With the still-loyal Hassan a constant reminder of his guilt, Amir makes life impossible for him and Ali, ultimately forcing them to leave town. Fast forward to the Russian occupation, flight to America, life in the Afghan exile community in the Bay Area. Amir becomes a writer and marries a beautiful Afghan; Baba dies of cancer. Then, in 2001, the past comes roaring back. Rahim, Baba’s old business partner who knows all about Amir’s transgressions, calls from Pakistan. Hassan has been executed by the Taliban; his son, Sohrab, must be rescued. Will Amir wipe the slate clean? So he returns to the hell of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and reclaims Sohrab from a Taliban leader (none other than Assef) after a terrifying showdown. Amir brings the traumatized child back to California and a bittersweet ending.

Rather than settle for a coming-of-age or travails-of-immigrants story, Hosseini has folded them both into this searing spectacle of hard-won personal salvation. All this, and a rich slice of Afghan culture too: irresistible.

Pub Date: June 2, 2003

ISBN: 1-57322-245-3

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2003

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