Lightning strikes twice for Khaled Hosseini's second tale of Afghanistan

When I picked up "A Thousand Splendid Suns," the much anticipated second novel by Khaled Hosseini, I had just devoured "The Kite Runner" in a single day but the day before. Still caught up in the thoughts and emotions engendered by that powerful and exquisite first novel I could imagine thousands of people holding this new book in their hands, wishing and hoping that Hosseini would do it again, but different and better. All things considered, following up on a successful first novel is probably harder than coming up with the original effort and Hosseini could have rested on his laurels in the manner of Harper Lee, but as "A Thousand Splendid Suns" amply proves, this native of Kabul has more stories to tell about the land of Afghanistan.

"A Thousand Splendid Suns" is the story of two women living in Afghanistan during the last three turbulent decades of that nation's history. In Part One we meet Mariam, the illegitimate daughter of Jalil, one of the wealthiest men in Herat and the owner of a cinema. Jalil has three wives and nine legitimate children, all of whom are strangers to Mariam, while Mariam lives with her mother in the "kolba" that Jalil and his sons built with sun-dried bricks and plastered with mud and straw. Laila is introduced in Part Two, the young daughter of the university educated Babi. Laila's mother is in mourning for the death of the two sons who joined the jihad against the Soviets and were killed. The paths of Mariam and Laila cross but once in these early parts before their lives become irrevocably linked in Part Three. There is really no need to tell you more, because your ability to anticipate the joining of these two threads will not allow you to guess what is to come in this story and all I really have to say is that those of you who loved "The Kite Runner" will not be disappointed by "A Thousand Splendid Suns."

This book brought tears to my eyes more than the first one and that may well be because of my gender: what happened to Hassan and Amir was horrific in the sense that I could imagine those things happening to me, while as the father of daughters this new novel outraged me. I also know that Hosseini does not spare his characters from their fates and I have to say that I keep thinking that the author is not making these things up; that his characters might be fictional but that family, friends and strangers have all told him stories of what happened in Afghanistan. Regardless of the truth behind this assumption, these stories ring true. I also admire the seamless way that Hosseini works in words in the language on his characters, so that we understand that while they are similar to our words for honor and pride, "nang" and "namoos" have significantly different meanings in this culture. Then there is the steadfast Islamic faith of Mariam and Laila that serves them during the reign of the Taliban, when blind obedience to the law is the order of the day. But it is their beliefs that ring true to us in these pages.

That this novel starts off with two young girls instead of two young boys certainly fulfills the requirement for something different but in the same vein, but what mattered to me more was the fact that this time the characters never come to the United States. That is because "A Thousand Splendid Suns" is not just the story of these characters but also of Afghanistan, a land that has once again been forgotten as first Iraq and now Iran replace it on the nightly news (the reporting of the deaths of U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan always seems like an afterthought when it is mentioned on the news). However, in the end the biggest difference between "A Thousand Splendid Suns" and Hosseini's first novel would be Part Four of this one, which is to say that he takes the characters who have survived further down the road than he did with Amir and his family in "The Kite Runner." Having enjoyed his first two novels within the span of but a few days, I will now have to endure the passage of several years before Hosseini's next novel, but I have no doubts that he will do it again, but different, and that the story will be worth the wait.

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