A Thousand Splendid Suns


Khaled Hosseini




Date Reviewed:

February 4, 2009

haled Hosseini's debut novel was The Kite Runner, a wonderful novel about ordinary people who try to escape from the horrors of modern day Afghanistan. Hosseini returns to Afghanistan with his second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, this time to tell the tale of two women: Miriam and Laila. This story is portrait of Afghan society, and it is a brutal depiction. Even before the Taliban arrive, Afghanistan is a nightmare of poverty, cruelty, and hopelessness, especially for a woman.

The beginning of the novel is the best part. The reader is first introduced to Miriam when she is a little girl. Miriam's is the daughter of a wealthy man named Jalil, but Jalil does not officially recognize her or her mother (Nana). Instead, Miriam and Nana live in a shack outside of town, where Jalil comes to visit on Thursdays. He brings presents and supplies, and treats Miriam wonderfully and she adores him. But as Miriam grows older, she comes to resent the fact that she isn't bigger part of Jalil's life. Why doesn't he bring her into Herat so see the rest of the family? Why don't they go to the cinema together? Miriam decides to force the issue, she will go to the house of Jalil and force him to acknowledge her. Things go badly, and as a result, 15 year old Miriam finds herself married off to 40 year old Rasheed, a shoemaker in distant Kabul. This section of the novel is great; it is full of descriptions of loss, grief, hardships, disillusionment - Hosseini writes well about those topics.

Hosseini then introduces us to Laila, a bright young woman living in Kabul, the daughter of teachers. Laila's best friend is a boy named Tariq. Tariq has lost one leg due to a mine, so he is not conscripted to join the jihad against the Russian invaders. Because this novel is told from the point of view of women, who are confined to their households, the war of Afghanistan is only experienced second hand - news of the warlords fighting the Russians. But when the Russians are finally ousted, the situation in Kabul deteriorates - the warlords fight amongst themselves, and Kabul become a killing ground. Shells rain randomly onto the city, until Tariq's family can tolerate it no longer, and he and his family flee to Pakistan. But Laila's family does not go with him, and opting instead to remain in war-torn Kabul. This is another great piece of story telling, the young love of Laila for Tariq is written quite well, they seem like real people instead of characters in a novel.

Violent tragedy strikes Laila's family when she is 14, and she finds herself recovering in Rasheed and Miriam's household. But Rasheed is not acting benevolently when he permits Laila to stay as she regains her health. Miriam has been unable to bear Rasheed a son, and so he has decided to make young Lalia his second wife. Miriam, now in her thirties, is outraged that Rasheed would supplant her with a younger, prettier wife. Lalia loathes the thought of being married to Rasheeed, but a young woman with no family has zero hope in war-wracked Kabul.

This part of the novel, which makes up a majority of the story, gets more and more difficult to read. Not because the writing gets bad or the story suffers. But the material gets more brutal and uglier - the women are beaten and tormented. As his situation in life slips downward, Rasheed grows progressively more violent and cruel. The Taliban arrive, and the miserable lot of women grows even worse. The story becomes claustrophobic, with the women confined to Rasheed's house, unless they go out wearing a burkha and escorted by a male. This continues for years, with the situation continuing to get ever more desperate.

There is a great section where Laila decides she will flee Rasheed. She decides to tell Miriam of her impending escape to Pakistan, offering to bring her along. Miriam and Laila make their move - a tense situation, because Taliban are everywhere and women must be escorted by a male - but what male will escort Miriam and Laila. Betrayal, violence, heartache ensue.

I didn't give this book five stars, despite it wonderful depictions of character and Afghanistan, because it is remorseless and exhausting. This is not an uplifting book. The plight of the Afghanistan women is portrayed so vividly that it is hard to read about their suffering. This book is about sadness and dealing with tragedy.