“A Thousand Splendid Suns” is set in Afghanistan and tells the stories of Mariam and Laila, two very different women who come to share a terrible fate but also a beautiful friendship.
This novel was published in 2007, so it isn’t new. But if you have been following my blog for a while, you might recall that I try to read some of the books my high school-age daughters have been assigned to read for their English class. It exposes me to different books, gives us something to talk about and puts me in a position to be able to help them with their assignments. So the benefits are numerous.
I read “A Thousand Splendid Suns” because it is my daughters’ summer reading assignment. When I realized that it’s by the same author as “The Kite Runner,” my reaction was “Oh, man, it’s going to be depressing.” And sure enough, it was. But it also has some very good qualities – great storytelling, solid writing and the delivery of an important story about Afghanistan, enduring friendship and women’s rights (or lack thereof).
The novel begins with Mariam’s story. She was born out of wedlock to a successful local merchant and his housekeeper. This was so scandalous for that place and time that her mother’s father left town in disgrace and baby Mariam and her mother are banished to a hovel on the outskirts of town. Things are ok for Mariam for the first 15 years of her life, but then things go horribly wrong. Her mother commits suicide and her father marries her off to a much older pig of a man who lives hundreds of miles away in Kabul.
At this point, I checked in with one of my daughters via text:
Me: I’m getting ready to begin part 2 of the book you guys are making me read for school.;-) It’s as depressing as I expected. How far along are each of you?
A: Where she is having miscarriages
Me: Ok. We’re not too far apart. What do you think so far?
A: It’s sad
I want to cry for her but I’m strong
Me: Yes you are. She was you’re age when she got married. Can you imagine being married off to a big, smelly, old stranger? How awful!
By the way, my daughter knows that my comments are mostly tongue in cheek. But did you catch what she said about the miscarriages? On top being forced to marry a stranger, she doesn’t even get the comfort that a child can bring because she is plagued by miscarriages. And her husband forces to wear a burqa. And he beats her. And she has no friends. And then the Soviets invade her country. And after the Soviets, her city is besieged by warlords. And then the Taliban come and outlaw everything, including laughing in public. Layer upon layer of misery. Honestly, that storytelling device was overused. It was almost laughable.
Next we meet Laila, a young girl living in Kabul. Her gentle father dotes on her and encourages her to do well in school. Her mother is greatly despondent over the fate of Laila’s two older brothers, who have left home to fight the Soviet invaders, but she also loves Laila in her own way. Laila and her childhood friend, Tariq, are also realizing that their innocent friendship is morphing into romantic love. Everything is pretty good for Laila until the violence in the city drives Tariq’s family out of the country. Then Laila is orphaned and, not seeing any other options, ends up married to Mariam’s husband, so the lout has two wives to terrorize.
The book then turns to the relationship between Mariam and Laila. It’s hostile at first but then transforms into a beautiful friendship, one in which one of them makes the ultimate sacrifice in order to ensure that the other can experience freedom and happiness. Finally, the last 5% of the book contains a message the rest of the book was missing for me – a message of hope.
On the positive side, the author really makes his homeland of Afghanistan come alive through his descriptions of the land, weather, food and people. The history he covers about the different ruling regimes is both fascinating and sad, especially as it relates to women’s rights. Ironically, communist rule was far better for women than when the Taliban took over. Women went from being able to hold down professional jobs to suddenly having to wear burqas and needing a male escort whenever they left the house. And the devastation of places like Kabul was tragic. A peaceful city quickly became the scene of regular shelling, random gunfire and bands of violent rebels. Unfortunately, I typically think of places like Kabul as being bombed out, dangerous and strewn with rubble. It’s good to be reminded that Kabul was once a regular, peaceful city.
The other positive take-away from this novel is the power of friendship between women. Once Mariam and Laila opened their hearts to each other, they became stronger and better able to endure the hardships in their lives. They each filled a hole in the other one’s life. Laila and her children, in particular, made Mariam’s life less awful and, perhaps, even occasionally joy-filled.
Finally, I like the way Khaled Hosseini writes. His prose is mostly straightforward but sprinkled with beautiful surprises. It has a pleasing cadence to it.
Do the positives outweigh the negatives? For me, maybe by a little. Am I glad my daughters are reading it? Yes. I think this novel will expose them to a vastly different country and culture in a way that is much more interesting than a textbook. Hopefully, they won’t get too mired down in the book’s sadness.
If you were developing a syllabus for a World Literature class, what is the very first book you would include on it?