Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Book Review: The Bookseller of Kabul

Growing up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles was, at one and the same time, both very strange and yet remarkably normal. While the outside world watched the TV news coverage of bombs and bullets, most people in Northern Ireland lived fairly ordinary lives, even while being subjected to tremendous pressures. What was normal seemed very stressful to those looking in - something we realised when a few of us were in London on the day of the 07/07 terrorist attacks of 2005 and coped without panic, while a Scottish friend was extremely stressed wanting to get home and away from the madness.

Beneath the headlines, though, are ordinary lives; births, marriages and deaths; work and rest and play; fallings out and makings up; news and gossip; hopes and dreams.

Afghanistan is one of those places that is never off the news. Famous or infamous because of the ongoing placement of British and American soldiers, and the rising death toll of the effort to bring peace and security to that war-torn land. Yet, just like Northern Ireland, within Afghanistan there are many ordinary families with their own fascinating stories. In The Bookseller of Kabul, Asne Seierstad tells just one family's story.

The Bookseller of Kabul is a wonderful portrait of life in Afghanistan, with Seierstad a masterful painter of sights and smells and scenes. The reader is transported to Kabul, and given access to the family of Sultan Khan, his two wives, his matriarchal mother, his children, brothers and sisters, and extended family. Having spent three months living with them, Seierstad tells plenty of stories, following the customs and rituals of proposal, engagement, and wedding - through negotiation between the families without the couple meeting or expressing an opinion.

There are insights into their hopes and fears; their loves and hates; their religious experiences; and what life was like during and after the reign of the Taliban. While there were some assertions I wouldn't necessarily agree with on Islam, it was interesting to hear what they make of it, and what it is like to go on pilgrimage, and what they hope to gain from it.

All in all, this was an enjoyable book, which you would particularly like if you've read either of Khaled Hosseini's books (The Kite Runner or A Thousand Splendid Suns). Well worth a read to experience another culture.


  1. Great review Gary, thank you.

  2. Hi Gary, this is on my son's reading list, he's in 10th grade. So is The Kite Runner, and when i read the "C" word on page 7 of that book, my stomach dropped. So the school has given me other choices, this being one. Can you tell me if any of those horrific words are in The Bookseller of Kabul? My email is kim@bk2.us. From a fellow devoted Jesus follower, thank you!


  3. Hi Kim.

    I can't remember that there were as many of those type of words in the Bookseller as there definitely are in The Kite Runner (or indeed A Thousand Splendid Suns). I took a quick flick through and found an occurrence of b*tch, and I know there are some frank discussions of marriage and such things.

    Sorry that I'm not able to be more specific - it's been a while since I read the book and I just can't remember.