The Bookseller of Kabul – Asne Seierstad

I have been meaning to read ‘The Bookseller of Kabul’ for quite some time even though I seemed to miss all of the hype around this book when it came out back in 2003/2004. One of my colleagues had been reading it and so we’d been discussing it and I had made a mental note to look out for it.  Going through my TBR during moving house last week I found my copy, which I think I bought almost two years ago from a charity shop, and thought it would make a change from some of the other things I have been reading. We all like a change now and again don’t we? Plus, I have been aiming to read more non-fiction this year. 

‘The Bookseller of Kabul’ was written after journalist Asne Seierstad spent time in Kabul and befriended the local bookseller and found both his story and life fascinating. She then asked if she could possibly stay with his family so that she could get a different but very real look at these people’s lives. Sultan, the bookseller, agreed and so she moved in and was taken in as part of the family. Through this she gained a true insight into how life in Kabul was after the Taliban regime and how it had been during and before. 

From the introduction and the blurb I thought this would be a really intriguing and unusual read and in some ways it was. Through Seierstad’s experiences you are totally immersed in the surroundings of Kabul, the smells, sounds and of course the culture from a very different perspective. Seierstad herself would were the Burka and go around dressed as one of the women and so in particular she got insight into their lives as underneath the gown and headdress she became anonymous, even if it wasn’t the most pleasant of experiences. 

Sadly, though a compelling insightful and often shocking read, the book was readable but wasn’t what I had hoped for. I was expecting this to be a blow by blow account of Asne’s story through her eyes and yet what she has chosen to do is make it into a story seen by a third party looking in on the family. I always have trouble when people do this as though its claimed to be ‘non-fiction’ I always wonder how someone can stop themselves from fictionalising things if it’s not from their exact account. Seierstad may have overheard all these stories in the months she lived with the family but she wasn’t actually there and I would have found her account as a westerner drawn into their world more interesting. 

This could be down to the fact that having read both ‘The Kite Runner’ and ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ by Khaled Hosseini first this seemed to pale into comparison slightly. Maybe if I hadn’t read ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ this would have rated much higher with me as the struggle of women in Kabul is made fully clear in ‘The Bookseller of Kabul’ and wasn’t in ‘The Kite Runner’. This is a great book; don’t get me wrong I just wish I had read it before any Hosseini as though his is fiction it reads much better. If Seierstad had written her experiences from her perspective I think this could have been outstanding, and if she ever does I will be down to the book store buying a copy on the day of release.

12 Comments

Filed under Asne Seierstad, Review, Virago Books

12 responses to “The Bookseller of Kabul – Asne Seierstad

  1. I agree with everything you’ve written here. I definitely think her decision to keep herself out of the book was the wrong one.

  2. I read this a few years ago and can’t remember much about it – I think that just shows that it doesn’t have the same impact as Kite Runner or Thousand Splendid Suns, which I read at a similar time. It was OK, but not in the same league as the other two.

    • I think that in being caught between trying to write the peoples story in a non fictional sense yet not writing in first person rather than leave a blank canvas she actually leaves something that seems half done.

  3. I haven’t read this but agree that Hosseini is informative and evocative in his fiction.

    I imagined this to be somewhat like Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, except for the differing location and extreme political situations, but it sounds a lot lighter.

  4. It would be hard for just about anything to stand up to Hosseini. He’s just that good.

  5. I loved this book when I read it very many years ago. The whole point is that she keeps herself out of the story, otherwise it loses its objectiveness. In keeping her distance, she allows the actions of each individual to tell their own story without fear, favour or judgement.

    PS> Is Hosseini really that good? I have only ever heard bad things about his books — that they’re manipulative and Americanised versions, and so not very authentic. For that reason I’ve given them a wide berth.

    • I think that’s the problem with the book – I don’t think it’s objective at all. She’s chosen to write about it in a very particular way, and the language she uses and the scenes she chooses to present make it clear that she is still very much a part of the narrative – her own voice is just absent.

      • Maybe my memory has been tarnished with time (I read this in 2005), but I remember being shocked to the core about the ways in which women were treated in this household and the culture in general. Because Seierstad keeps her voice out of the story it is me, the reader, who is able to come to this conclusion. I think the impact of this would be lessened if Seierstad was to keep telling us her feelings and her reactions in an obvious way. I keep meaning to read her other books, so this review and discussion has prompted me to hunt them out.

  6. Kim I honestly think if I had read it when it came out I would have been in awe of it. However having read Hosseini and his fictional account of males perpectives in The Kite Runner and the female perspectives in A Thousand Splendid Suns, though based on much research and experience, l both left me breathless with anger and emotion.

    I think the reason that this one didnt, even though the scenario’s are awful, is that as I didn’t ever feel I knew the characters and they stayed one dimensional, quite possibly as you said to let the character tell the factual story,and therefore I didnt connect emotionally, so though I was shocked something didnt click like it did in Hosseini’s work.

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