The Kite Runner

By Khaled Hosseini.

Amir is a privileged child from a well-to-do Afghan family living in Kabul in the early 1970s. He often plays with Hassan, a Hazara boy, who is the son of the family’s servant, Ali. Sometimes Amir is unpleasant to the deeply loyal Hassan, and jealous of the attention which he gets from Amir’s father, Baba.

Baba is a larger-than-life figure, who is disappointed by Amir, who displays none of the more manly virtues he hopes to see from him. If the boys get into trouble, Hassan usually stands up for both of them. The fact that Amir wants to be a writer doesn’t help.

Nonetheless, Amir is good at kite fighting while Hassan is good at kite running, having an unerring instinct for where a kite is going to come down once its string has been cut. Together, the boys are triumphant in a kite fighting contest, but it comes at a cost when the brutal bullying Assef corners Hassan and rapes him while Amir does nothing to try and stop it happening.

Amir and Hassan’s victory does at least allow Amir to break the ice with his father, and he has little to do with Hassan until Ali declares that he and his son are leaving much to Baba’s dismay.

When the Russians invade, Amir and his father flee to the US where the old man works at a petrol station while Amir goes to college to become a writer, meets a girl, Soraya, and marries her. Baba dies of cancer, and the couple are unable to have children even though there seems to be no reason they cannot.

Time passes and Amir is summoned to Pakistan by his father’s friend, Rahim Khan, who has tragic news about Hassan and his wife, who were murdered by the Taliban, leaving behind a son, Sohrab, and some news about which neither Amir nor Hassan knew anything, which changes the nature of the relationship between them. Amir’s job is to reluctantly go to Kabul and find Sohrab.

He manages to track the boy down soon enough, but because the orphanage struggles to cope, the director allows a prominent member of the Taliban to pick some child to abuse, and the child of the moment is Sohrab.

Amir goes to confront the abuser, who is none other than Assef, who proceeds to give him a severe beating until Sohrab, who has inherited his father’s skill with the slingshot saves Amir by taking out Assef’s left eye just as Hassan threatened to do many years previously.

The pair escape to Peshawar and then move to Islamabad for their safety. Amir finds that it will be almost impossible for him to get Sohrab into the States, with one option being the one thing that Sohrab wants least of all – to be returned to an orphanage. The boy tries to commit suicide on the same evening that Amir hears that he will be able to take him to the US after all.

Even when Sohrab is in America, he is still rather withdrawn until one day he sees some kites being flown, and together with Amir, he takes down another kite.

The Kite Runner is riven with parallels from one generation to the next – Baba and Ali; Amir and Hassan; Amir and Sohrab. Hassan saves Amir from Assef; then Sohrab saves Amir from Assef for real. The beating which Amir receives from Assef purges him of the guilt he felt about not trying to defend Hassan from Assef. Sohrab avenges the insult to his father in the way that Hassan warned Assef of, by taking out his left eye with a stone from a slingshot.

The relationship between Amir and Hassan is very Gunga Din with Hassan being the better man, and the man who is better matched to what Baba expects from a son.

The book flags a little when the story shifts to America, and then drags at the end with the issues of adopting an Afghan orphan. The use of American jars at times, especially in the parts based in Afghanistan, and the whole fathers-and-sons trope is a an American cliché to say the least.

Overall, though, the virtues of The Kite Runner outweigh the vices.


The Hound of the Baskervilles

By Arthur Conan Doyle.

After Sir Charles Baskerville is frightened to death, probably by some spectral hound that is part of the family’s history, his heir, Sir Henry, returns from Canada to claim the title, but is immediately dogged in London by someone who seems to be trying to scare him off by sending him a warning or following him about the city.

Through the agency of his friend, Dr. Mortimer, Sir Henry visits Holmes, who finds the case most interesting, and sends Dr. Watson to act as his agent in Devon while he remains behind to deal with a case which requires his utmost concentration.

Once at Baskerville Hall with Sir Henry, Watson meets the locals, including the Stapletons. He is a naturalist who collects butterflies; she is his sister, who issues a warning that Sir Henry should get out while the going it good.

Though Watson and Sir Henry are inclined the doubt the presence of some infernal canine, they hear the howl of  the creature across the moor.

In addition to the hound, there is also a convict called Selden, hiding out on the moors, and aided and abetted by  Sir Henry’s housekeeper (the man’s sister) and her husband, Barrymore. But before he can escape from England, the hound pursues him to his death.

There’s also another visitor on the moors who, Watson eventually discovers, is Sherlock Holmes himself, who has been observing everyone’s doings incognito so that he can investigate the case more effectively.

He uses Sri Henry as bait, but fails to take the possibility of dense fog into account, saving the man’s life just in time, and hunting down Stapleton, another possible heir to the Baskerville estate, until it becomes clear that the bog has swallowed another victim.

The dog was merely a large breed of mortal hound with its mouth painted with phosphorus (which would probably have killed it; or have poisoned it slowly).

Stapleton’s sister, to whom Sir Henry had taken rather a fancy, was actually the man’s wife (and also a victim of his when she refused to co-operate with him), and like any good Victorian gentleman, Sir Henry sails off with a male companion, Dr. Mortimer, to recover from his ordeal.

In the best style of the penny dreadful, there is a certain amount of waffle in The Hound of the Baskervilles, especially the long epilogue in which Holmes explains what Stapleton had been up to. The so-called hell hound is part of  the trope, and all the awkward questions which would have arisen in any subsequent trials are conveniently swallowed by Dartmoor. There is also the usual hyperbole about how mysterious and complex the case was, and just when Watson thinks that his own powers of deduction have improved through his association with Holmes, he finds that he’s still mostly wrong and merely confirming the master detective’s own rightness.