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


  1. Thanks for your review. Highest on the "to buy" list at the moment (even higher than 'March' !)

    I am currently reading (when not HP under Junior Reader's instructions) Our Woman In Kabul by Irris Mackler - one of the first journos into Afghanistan after the Taliban defeat, who offers a woman's perspective about that most fascinating of regions.

    Another fantasticly wonderful book on the area is The Carpet Wars by Christopher Kremmer.

    Central Asia is my favourite "exotic" region to read about. Probably because I love Islamic art - carpets, ceramics etc.

  2. I didn't read your review (just looked at your rating) because I just received it from the library, so it's next up. I'll read it when I'm done. :) Glad you liked it.

  3. It's so true that meddling with other countries can have terrible consequences. Just thinking of Iraq, at least the people weren't murdering each other every day when Saddam Hussein was in charge. They had running water, electricity, universities, businesses, everything. There is something to be said for (secular) order. With order there is a chance of progress. With chaos, no chance.

  4. I thought this was a great book when I read it not too long ago!

  5. Thanks for the tips on more books on the same subject, Sally. I'll take a look at those to see if I can get my hands on them here.

    Having spent a few years in Muslim countries, I have to agree with you about the art that comes from that culture. I didn't end up with much because it was so difficult to get it home on the small planes we flew from there to a major airport, but the things I did bring home will be with me for a long time.

  6. No real spoilers, Joy. I try not to do that, and I'm starting to find ways to write reviews while revealing less and less of actual plot lines now. It's tricky, and a fine line to walk when writing about a book.

  7. Sylvia, don't they call that "the law of unintended consequences" or something like that. I guess it's similar to that old "be careful what you wish for" saying that we hear all the time..very dangerous to fool with a society whose very stability is so precariously balanced.

  8. Have you read his first book, Marg? I have a copy but it's still in the stack waiting for me to finally get to it. Having read this one, it probably won't be too long before it makes it to the top of the stack.

  9. I have read it. I think that this book really stood up against the first one which was incredibly popular. I look forward to seeing if you enjoy it or not.

  10. I'll probably get to that one sometime in the next few weeks, I think, Marg. I'm really curious to see why it gained so much popularity for a first time novelist...I'm always at a loss to figure out why some novels are such huge breakthroughs and other, equally worthy ones, die a quiet death.

  11. I have heard nothing but good things about this book and "The Kite Runner." I hope to be able to read them both soon. One is in the mail and I have the audio version of the other. Thanks for the review

  12. I hope that you enjoy them, framed. I'm looking forward to The Kite Runner as something I still hope to get to fairly soon but my TBR list is a very flexible one and things keep working their way to the top of it unexpectedly.