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The Illuminations feels like two short novellas that have been interleaved, presumably in an effort to add bulk. On the one hand, we have Anne, an elderly mother who is succumbing slowly to dementia. Her family knows that she had lived in the United States and England before settling down in Ayrshire, but as her recent memories fade, she exposes the hints of old secrets. And on the other hand, there’s the story of Luke, a soldier stationed in Afghanistan, witnessing brutality and betrayal – then failing to adjust to life back home. Luke is Anne’s grandson. Of the two stories, Anne’s is more intriguing, but perhaps promises more than it delivers. The denouement in Blackpool (hence The Illuminations) feels contrived and when the secrets are revealed, the biggest mystery is why they were ever secret to start with. Luke’s story is pretty standard Afghan fare that is doing the rounds at the moment; others have done it in more depth and, perhaps, with more credibility. The characters in Luke’s story seem a bit cartoonish; the events a bit too much like a reheating of news headlines. It may be readable (actually, it zips along), but it doesn’t seem to add much to the canon. The real sticking point, though, is that the two stories never cohere into a whole; but neither do they offer any real counterpoint to one another. They are just two separate stories, with a familial relationship built in as a framing device to justify their inclusion within the same covers. The end result is a short, readable novel but one which won’t offer much insight into the human condition; won’t wow anyone with its beauty; won’t impress anyone with its skill; and won’t provoke strong feeling towards its characters. Graham Greene divided his novels into “serious literature” and lighter “entertainments”. Were Andrew O’Hagan to do the same, I suspect The Illuminations would be in the entertainments category. ***00
This is Hosseini's third book, after The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. I read and thought the first book was very good (and was thus at odds with most BGO posters), but did not read the second one. I already know and am annoyed by the horrible position of women around the world--I didn't think that book would do much other than really make me mad. But when this book came out, I wanted to read it. The beginning of the story is a fable a father tells his children about a jinni that takes a child from his parents and takes him to another place. The father, terrified, goes to find him, but when he does, he realizes that the boy is in a much better place, so the father decides to leave him there. But then it becomes obvious that the father telling the story is doing the same thing. He is a very poor man with two motherless children, an older boy and his adored (and adoring) younger sister, Abdullah and Pari. He has remarried and has another child, Iqbal, and there simply isn't enough money for all of them. The father is taking the children with him to Kabul to sell Pari to a family to be their spoiled only child. This is a devastating blow to both children, but particularly Abdullah as Pari's memories are very dim. The rest of the book follows their lives and the lives of many people who are only tangentially related to them. In fact, it's so tangential that one of my friends asked why the neighbor boy in Kabul who grew up to be a doctor was in the book and I had to remind him that the boy ended up being Abdullah's doctor in the United States. So, if you read this book--and I encourage you to do so--you might want to keep track in some way of the characters so that you don't end up a little mystified the way my friend did. There is a lot of separation and loss in this book. Families are divided on purpose or by accident. Many people attempt to connect with others to replace this loss, but often even those plans go awry. It's clear that Pari's uncle, Nabi, arranges her sale thinking that he will be nearby (he's a servant in the family that adopts her) and can keep an eye on her, but instead Pari's mother takes her to France and leaves Pari's father, who has had a stroke, to be cared for by Nabi for years. France is a world away from Afghanistan and, by that time, Afghanistan itself is heading into the hell of Russia/Taliban/U.S. invasions that upend everyone and everyplace. Lots of physical and emotional refugees. But there are also lovely connections that end up being made and the end of the book, in particular, involves the one that is the most touching, although it comes so late that it's not as satisfying as it could be. In fact, it's very sad. By that point, I really cared about all the people in the story and my guess is that you will, too. There were two stories within the book that seemed a bit odd to me and I wondered if Hosseini was trying to make a political point with them. As I've mentioned a million times before, I don't particularly like being preached at, even if I agree, but I'm not 100% sure that's what Hosseini was doing (which means he did a good job if that's indeed what he was doing). I have spoilered both discussions because the stories have twists and I think you should get the "benefit" of the twist. In the other story,