The story that Khaled Hosseini tells in And the Mountains Echoed is one of loss and love — in that order.
At its heart, this tale spells out what happens when a brother and sister are torn apart as children — a father's choice to do what he hopes is the right thing.
But for Abdullah and Pari, children in 1952 Afghanistan who have lost their mother and now have a stepmother and a new half-brother, the separation defines their self and their survival.
They are not the only siblings separated in the novel. Their stepmother and her twin sister are separated by death; she also loses her brother, Nabi, when he moves to the big city of Kabul.
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But Nabi plays a crucial role in his sister's family. Working as a chauffeur and houseman for a well-to-do, childless couple, the Wahdatis, Nabi introduces Nila Wahdati to his sister and her poor family.
Nila, who cannot have children, is enchanted by the little girl, Pari. Later, the girl is "adopted," escaping the poverty of rural Afghanistan for the relative wealth of Kabul.
The moment of separation, when Pari realizes she is being taken away from her brother, is painful even by Nabi's recollection:
"I will never forget the sudden emotional mayhem. Pari slung over my shoulder, panic-stricken, kicking her legs, shrieking, 'Abollah! Abollah!' as I whisked her away. Abdullah, screaming his sister's name, trying to fight past his father."
So while Pari grows up being told she is the Wahdatis' natural child, she always remembers fragments from before.
Those memories stay so strong in part because her life with Nila is difficult, even after they move to Paris. Nila is a self-absorbed poet who cares more about her lovers and drinking than her daughter, who winds up as more of the parent than the child.
"She sits on the edge of the bed and watches her mother fall asleep. Then she heads for the kitchen to begin the formidable task of cleaning up."
The book is Hosseini's first novel since 2007's A Thousand Splendid Suns; the author shot into the public eye with his 2003 debut novel, The Kite Runner.
In And the Mountains Echoed he masterfully moves the story between Afghanistan and Paris, with side trips to the United States and Greece. In some chapters, he focuses on Nabi or former neighbors who had fled the Taliban.
Readers get a full picture of Pari's life — her marriage, her children and other relationships — while learning less about Abdullah.
It's only toward the end of this beautiful tale of family that Hosseini reveals more about Abdullah, still devoted to his long-gone sister and still, somehow, hoping they will be reunited.
"'She was perfect,' he would say."
The same might be said of this novel. It's nearly perfect just as it is.
'And the Mountains Echoed'
By Khaled Hosseini
Riverhead. 402 pages. $28.95.