Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A Thousand Splendid Suns

Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini's second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, recounts Afghanistan's troubled history of the last several decades through the eyes of a segment of the Afghan population that probably suffered and lost the most during that period, its women. The novel's two main characters, Mariam and Laila, two very different women, are thrown together because of what seems like a never-ending war, and their almost helpless struggle for survival comes to represent the struggle of their very country for the same.

Mariam, the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy businessman, lived in isolation with her mother in a tiny hut for the first 15 years of her life. When forced into marriage with a 40-year old Kabul shopkeeper, she finds herself unable to provide him the sons he so desires. Laila is the only daughter of a family who lives in the same Kabul neighborhood that Mariam has settled into and Mariam has been vaguely aware of her since Laila was a small child.

Having been raised in such different circumstances, the women are not natural allies. On the one hand, Mariam has been raised without a father and in a society that treats illegitimate children as outcasts. Laila, on the other hand, was raised by a father who was determined to see her educated and who always told her that she could be anything that she wanted to be. But as their world becomes more and more subject to strict Islamist law and the women realize that they have almost no rights under that law, they find that they have more in common than they realized. And they find that they need each other.

The recent history of Afghanistan is a tragic one. Its people have been living in a war zone for decades, beginning with the Soviet occupation, and each time that things seemed to be getting better, the country was able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The Soviet army was forced to leave by jihadist warlords who almost immediately launched their own civil war when the Soviets cleared out. And the warlords destroyed much of what had not already been destroyed before the Taliban faction became strong enough to take control of the government. And, of course, after the Taliban had systematically destroyed modern Afghan society, returned the country to the standards of the 7th century and given safe haven to Osama bin Laden, the United States and her allies invaded the country in hopes of capturing bin Laden and destroying the group responsible for the September 11, 2001 attack on New York City.

That is the history of Afghanistan that we all know. But A Thousand Splendid Suns makes the reader feel and understand Afghanistan's story in a way that reading newspaper headlines will never do it. The book did not leave me feeling optimistic about that region's future. In fact, being reminded of the potential for havoc and genocide there due to the many tribal differences had the opposite effect on me. It makes me realize how dangerous it is to upset the very fragile stability that countries in that part of the world have achieved for themselves.

The book also contains one of the saddest sentences that I have ever read it a novel:
"One last time, Mariam did as she was told."
Khaled Hosseini is a fine writer, as he has shown with this novel and with his first, The Kite Runner. The story he tells here is a tragic one for sure, but I somehow expect that Afghan reality is even more terrible than Hosseini portrays it in this book. Nevertheless, this is a provocative novel and I highly recommend it to all.

Rated at: 4.0
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