Friday, June 21, 2013

And The Mountains Echoed: Anyone else notice that in Khaled Hosseini's world, women are ageing badly, misshapen or horribly disfigured?

Maybe it's because I recently turned 43, or maybe it's because last month I read Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, and liked it, but my enjoyment of Khaled Hosseini's popular third book, And The Mountains Echoed (now number two on the New York Times' Best Seller list), was paired with an undercurrent of discomfort - then irritation. By the end I was angry.
I read the book on vacation, when any and all forms of literary criticism were far from my mind, so it took me awhile to put my finger on it. Although there were signs all along, it was only on page 231that I realised what was happening. The main character Pari, who was ripped from her loving brother and adopted by another Afghani family at such a young age she doesn't remember it, had so far been spared. Then, while she is on vacation, Mr Hosseini hits on a favourite theme: once over 40, any semblance of female beauty starts to decay:

"As they walk into the shop, Pari catches a glimpse of her reflection in the plate glass. Normally, of late, when she steps in front of a mirror an automatic mental process kicks into gear that prepares her to greet her older self. It buffers her, dulls the shock. But in the shopwindow, she has caught herself off guard, vulnerable to reality undistorted by self-delusion. She sees a middle-aged woman in a drab, floppy blouse and a beach skirt that does't conceal quite enough of the saggy folds of skin over her kneecaps. The sun picks out the gray in her hair. And despite the eyeliner, and the lipstick that defines her lips, she has a face now that a passerby's gaze will engage and then bounce from, as it would a street sign or a mailbox number. The moment is brief, barely enough for a flutter of the pulse but long enough for her illusory self to catch up with the woman gazing back from the shopwindow. It is a little devastating."

I found the passage odd, and out of place. This Pari (there are two, more on the other one in a minute) was never characterised as a beauty in the first place, nor is she portrayed as being the kind of person who looks matter much to in the first place. Rather she's a mathematician, a pragmatic, common sense, more-grounded counterbalance to her mercurial and narcissistic poet of a mother, Nila.

At one point in the story Hosseini includes an interview with Nila, published in a poetry quarterly, which I found an strange plot device with many unlikely inclusions, including this one, on page 180: 

"Nila Wahdati states her age as forty-four. She is a strikingly attractive woman, perhaps past the peak of her beauty but, as yet, not far past."

Not that crazy, although it's hard to imagine an interviewer writing such a thing, and in a poetry quarterly to boot. But then consider earlier in the book, when we are introduced to a kind-hearted Bosnian nurse caring for a (you guessed it) mutilated girl in a Kabul hospital, on page 148:

"Idris finds it hard to guess at Amra's age, though likely she's younger than she looks. There is a fading shimmer of beauty, a roughshod sexuality, behind the yellowing teeth, the fatigue pouches under the eyes. In four, maybe five years, Idris thinks, that too will be gone" 

See my irritation. It's like Hosseini is one of those overbearing Arab mothers, using every opportunity to proclaim "hurry up ladies! It's all almost over!"

And then there is the disfigurement. Amra's patient, Roshi, with a wound so disgusting grown men can't help but gasp when they see it; Masooma, rendered a helpless quadriplegic who is often mired in her own filth and, later on, Thalia, a young girl who suffered a disfiguring dog bite to the face so horrific her mother forces her to wear at mask. The second Pari doesn't escape either: Hosseini obviously needs a physical attribute to twig readers to her identity at one point, but does it have to be "she also has a strangely disproportionate body, slim and dainty up top but weighed down below the waist by wide hips, thick thighs, and big ankles"? I have just described almost every female character in the book of note!

The men fare much better. One pivotal male character suffers a stroke and another dementia, and neither is portrayed as a picnic visually. And at one point matted hair, dirty clothes and rotting teeth are used to describe the poor and displaced men of a family trying to return and settle in Afghanistan from Pakistan. Nothing that couldn't be fixed by a good wash and a trip to the dentist!

What really pulled this whole thing together (and kind of ruined the book for me, to be honest) was the description of a lesser male character who has re-emerged after perhaps a decade, on page 201. 

"He was wearing a tweed jacket over a sweater, jeans, a wool scarf. His hair was longer, and he had aged some, but elegantly, in a way that women his age might find unfair and even infuriating. Still lean and fit, a couple of crow's feet, some more graying at the temples, his face set with just a light touch of weariness."

Set aside the obvious, that Hosseini could be describing himself here, in evidence in his jacket picture. Be sure, I have nothing against the man, who seems lovely and thoughtful and humble in his published interviews. And he's right of course, women do find it irritating when men are presumed to grow more handsome with age while we are often cast as clinging tragically to brittle former shells of ourselves. But that's because it's not fair and it's not true. As for whether Hosseini's portrayals of women really are as peculiar and unsavoury as they seem to me, or I am just a crazy person shouting into the bloggy ether "whyyyyyyy" when I should be spending more time worrying about my dwindling looks and fixing myself up, damn it, I have no idea. 

I was going to re-read The Kite Runner and 1000 Splendid Suns for a clearer picture on Hosseini's portrayal of female characters, but I am too exhausted by trying to catch sideways glances at myself in the mirror to see if it really is as bad as Hosseini portrays to bother. I think I'll check out Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth instead; it's been awhile, but as I recall, we do fare a little better under her pen. 

No comments:

How to be a happy expat

Because a cloud wall makes you want to take a selfie.  After 10 years living in the UAE, some of that time happy, some miserable and ...