It occurs to me that some readers may wonder why the Editor of the Webmag chose to title this regular column In Residence. After all, it seems as if I am never at home. Last month I was getting ready to leave for a conference in Chicago, and this month I am writing this piece in Kuala Lumpur, poised to leave for Singapore and then England. Later in the year I will be in Brazil, the Philippines and Ethiopia, and you will probably hear from me while I am there.
Of course, in between all this is my life’s commitment: the extended family or household called Mill Grove in East London. So, do I ever see the place? Or possibly more important, do the children and young people there ever see me? Part of the problem is that travel (usually teaching and lecturing in some form of child development) is one of the best opportunities for me to write articles and papers. Thirteen hour flights give time for quality reading and study (and also articles, even if they are not of the same quality!).
I discovered The Kite Runner in the bookshop at Heathrow Airport some months ago, but have only just completed reading it. And, as one who has read pretty widely in literature, I felt I should try to explain why this first novel of Khaled Hosseini now rates so highly on my list of all time greats. I don’t want to spoil the book for you, but perhaps it is helpful to say that it focuses on the relationship between two boys (and their families) in Kabul, Afghanistan. It is set during a period that includes the rule of the Taliban, and explores the interaction between politics, religion and culture on the one hand, and everyday relationships, family and community life, on the other. The title refers to a kite flying competition that the two boys take part in and it is a powerful and enduring symbol hovering over the story.
The relationship of the boys and their families is examined under a microscope. The author is in fact a doctor, and this is not irrelevant to some of the key details in what he describes. I think I had better leave the plot there because otherwise you might not read the book, and readers of this column who have already read the book will become impatient. Why is the book so very special, so moving and compelling? Primarily because it is a richly textured narrative, beautifully and honestly told. But within this some features can be singled out.
It’s a cumulative effect, but I felt that there are few better studies of child development, particularly of boys, that I have read than this novel. Father/son relationships are particularly well drawn, and considered from different perspectives. It made me wonder whether those of us who lecture in child development wouldn’t be better off giving our students novels to read rather than textbooks.
As it happens the Chicago conference nudged me in this direction: it was about children’s spirituality and began with a very full and considered definition of what children’s spirituality means. The more I pondered this weighty and worthy academic offering, the more I wondered why we didn’t stick to the poets and what they had written. I was thinking of the Romantics in particular. Is there a point at which the social sciences must be silent, and let those who work primarily with the imagination rather than reason and analysis, take over?
The intense mixture of admiration of the boy for the father, idolisation, fear and yet love and genuine respect, is beautifully revealed as the story unfolds. And before the end, the reader, like the son, realises that the father has not been completely true to his guiding principle of life that “Untruth is theft”. It turns out that he has deceived both boys in a crucial matter, that completely skews their relationship with each other and with him.
The nature of physical and sexual abuse and the subsequent psychological and social effects are painfully and patiently described. As one who has spent much of his life alongside children who have suffered in this way, I found the insights of this novel completely convincing and true to life. And it is not just concerned with a few months or years, but with the way that abuse eats its way into the generations of families.
Then the interweaving of the cultural, political, religious and sporting life of Kabul with the very intimate and personal lives of the boys is described all through. It dawned on me that often the textbooks on child development (with some notable exceptions) tend to write in a rather abstract way, seeking to arrive at principles that can be applied in a variety of different cultural contexts. This novel made me reconsider this approach.
On the one hand there was so much that I recognised as true in my own (completely different) context; on the other hand, there was so much that was new and strange. I am not making a post-modern point here, and seeking to deconstruct modernity and the Enlightenment. It is just that where I am writing this piece I am surrounded by lots of Western textbooks, and the sound of children playing, and I can’t help wondering whether the writers had a clue that they would be taken seriously (and sometimes as gospel truth) in contexts whose games they do not know.
And that leads me to a final thought prompted by this book. One of the places where the two boys love to talk and play is a fruit tree. Some of the descriptions of what happens there are delightfully done, and certainly not overdone. And no doubt for many readers the tree was but one part of a wonderful range of places, features and settings described in exquisite prose during the course of the novel. But for me it touched something much, much deeper.
Trees are one of the most universal symbols in art, religion, culture. And they can mean so much to children. Reading about this tree in Kabul brought back memories of my own childhood. I thought of the pear tree where I had a special place, ideal for listening to Test matches on my very own crystal set; of the apple trees and plum trees from which I scrumped; of the fir trees that lined the drive between the beach and school where we holidayed in Churston Ferrers, creating an eerie darkness and silence even at midday … And I realised that I could probably write the story of my childhood by using trees as the primary metaphor and narrative link. People have already done this with things like food. It’s a thought.
But not the only one. Last night I received an email from one of my own (biological) children. It brought once again to my mind the tree on which she so often sat, and under which she played as a child in the garden of our little house (before we moved to Mill Grove). It was an apple tree. Not a big tree, but now I think about it, with beautiful blossom and tasty fruit. What I did not realise until years after we moved from this house and into Mill Grove, was that of all the things that she missed and felt she had lost in the move (and there were many), the tree was probably the most significant.
In some ways I am not sure whether she has ever recovered from the loss, and because I didn’t realise what it meant, I was never able to prepare her for the loss, or seek to comfort her after the trauma.
This, and so much more, The Kite Runner brought flooding back to me. I am not saying that the novel centres on this tree (although it may, in some respects, do just that) but I am saying that I sense that other readers will find deep resonances and associations with their own childhoods and lives, and perhaps with those of their children. And in this way there may be the potential for some healing, even atonement, which is at the real heart of the book.
If you are wondering what all this has got to do with flying kites, then I suggest you read the book.