Since his debut novel, The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini has crafted a beloved style of writing in books which are deeply rooted in the heartbreak and turmoil of a war-torn Afghanistan.
Loyal readers like myself will know Hosseini’s story-telling to be powerful, his characters to be compelling, and know that their experiences will be felt long after the final pages. Alongside The Kite Runner another two of Hosseini’s best-sellers, And the Mountains Echoed, and A Thousand Splendid Suns, have sold over 50 million copies worldwide.
After five years, Hosseini indulges his readers with a fourth book, Sea Prayer, which was released this August. Sea Prayer completely sets itself apart from the author’s previous novels. In under 50 pages, with more emphasis on the British artist Dan Williams’ striking illustrations, the book can be easily read in about five minutes. And yet, at its core, it is still charged with the same compassion and poignancy that we have seen in the author’s novels.
Sea Prayer is the monologue of a father who, on a moonlit beach, confides in his sleeping son the nostalgic remembrance of their city Homs, Syria, before the devastation and displacement wreaked by war. As they wait for their boat to arrive, the father illustrates his own vibrant childhood in his grandmother’s home.
But we can feel his hope ebbing and his fear growing as the morning comes. The title of the book perfectly encapsulates the plight of this parent on the eve of a terrifying journey, a journey which comes without a choice, a journey away from home.
Hosseini’s inspiration for Sea Prayer came from the haunting viral image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee who drowned crossing the Mediterranean Sea, while trying to reach safety in September 2015.
Hosseini writes, “In the year after Alan’s death 4,176 others died or went missing attempting similar journeys. This book is dedicated to the thousands of refugees who have perished at sea fleeing war and persecution”.
The image of Alan Kurdi “bludgeoned” Hosseini; as a political refugee, he has expressed his own connection with the circumstances of displaced people. And as a parent, he could only imagine what it would be like to be Alan’s father. In Sea Prayer, the author invites readers of all ages to imagine the despairing conditions that could force a parent to embark on such a perilous journey with their child.
Hosseini succeeds at depicting victims of the refugee crisis with humanity and interiority, in a climate where headlines aren’t always friendly. While short, the length of the book certainly does not compromise on the message.
Where Hosseini’s words verbalise humanity, Dan Williams’ outstanding artworks perfectly illustrate it. The water colours spill onto the page in arresting colours, painting a bustling bazaar, or monochrome strokes to show a murdered city. The pictures complement and enhance the author’s voice, elevating Sea Prayer to something much more than just a story-book. This is a small book, with a big message and a big heart.
Hosseini will donate all author proceeds from this book to the UN Refugee Agency to fund indispensable services for refugees around the world, as well as The Khaled Hosseini Foundation to support humanitarian relief for families in Afghanistan. The publisher, Bloomsbury will also donate £1 of profit from each sold copy to UNHCR.