This novel had a great concept; lots of a fun for a book-lover like me. The main character is a rare-book dealer whose young and much-loved wife has recently died. The only thing that shakes Peter out of the fog of grief is a Victorian watercolour of a woman who looks almost exactly like his dead wife — and the unbelievably valuable old book to which the painting leads him. As Peter tracks the book (which of course, like all such books, is being sought by unscrupulous people who will stop at nothing to get it) in the present day, his story is interspersed with chapters showing the book’s journey through time. In this way The Bookman’s Tale is remeniscent of Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book, but despite the recurring themes of grief and loss, the tone here is lighter and the treatment of the subject more popular than literary. The language is straightforward and the characterizations sometimes a little thin and predictable, but the fascinating story of a book that, if it were found to be genuine, would change what we know about literature, is irresistible. I read this book quickly and with great pleasure.
(Parenthetical note: until I went back and looked at my review for People of the Book, I’d forgotten that I had once come up with a name for this sub-genre of books. I called it “Adventures in Resesarch” and besides People of the Book I included in that category Wilton Barnhardt’s ought-to-be-more-famous novel Gospel and of course Dan Brown’s ought-to-be-less-famous The Da Vinci Code, A.S. Byatt’s Possession, which I loved, and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, which disappointed me. I’d count The Bookman’s Tale as a worthy addition to my Adventures in Research shelf).
I loved both of Khaled Hosseini’s last two books, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, but I think I liked this one best of all three (they are not a trilogy, or connected in any way). I love the use of Afghanistan as a setting: for me, his novels bring not just Afghan culture vividly to life, but also the textbook fact that this is a country that has experienced war, one way or another, for almost all of the last 50 years. It’s one thing to know that as a historical fact; it’s another to put faces and names to the kind of people who would have been affected by violence, poverty and massive social upheaval over those years. That’s what this novels does — tells a sweeping story of Afghan life over several decades. Yet it’s also a very intimate story.
Had you told me in advance that structurally, this novel reads more like six novellas than like a single novel, I probably would have been put off — I like to start a story and follow the same group of characters through to the end. Here, the reader doesn’t get to do that. A single heart-wrenching decision by a father — to sell his young daughter to a wealthy family who want to adopt a little girl, in hopes of giving her a better life and saving the rest of the family from crushing poverty — has consequences that ripple through the generations. The initial impact is on the little girl, Pari, who is too young to even remember her family of origin, and the older brother, Abdullah, who adores her and is devastated by the loss. But rather than follow their story immediately, Hosseini turns to the stories of other people tangentially connected to the siblings — their uncle, Pari’s adoptive parents, their stepmother back in the village, even the neighbours who grow up in a house near Pari’s new home. Yet rather than being a jarring break from the story you thought you were following, each new section adds another piece of the puzzles, making this one family’s tragedy a vivid illustration of a country’s brokenness. I found every story absorbing, and by the time we get back — as we eventually do — to Abdullah and Pari’s tale, the story is much richer and more detailed.
I found this novel so emotionally intense and involving that I felt bereft when it was over.
Rather like the Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman “Long Way Round” books I read earlier this year, Around the World in 80 Days is the accompanying book to the TV series of the same name. British actor, comedian and writer Michael Palin has, among many other post-Monty-Python projects, hosted several BBC travel series, beginning with one in which he attempts to recreate the 80-day journey of Jules Verne’s hero using only ground transportation and boats — a task that is surprisingly more difficult today than in Verne’s day, because the popularity of air travel has meant the loss of many routes formerly served by trains and passenger ferries. The challenges Palin faced on his journey around the world made for excellent TV and the book provides an interesting behind-the-scenes glance into the series. I don’t know if it works well enough as travel writing to stand alone if you haven’t seen the series. But I do highly recommend not just this but Palin’s other travel series, and if you enjoy them, there’s a book to go along with each one.