A masterfully written, incredibly moving novel
A Thousand Splendid Suns is one of those rarest of novels, a work of fiction that stakes an uncontested claim to the status of literature immediately upon publication. Khaled Hosseini has written a majestic, sweeping, emotionally powerful story that provides the reader with a most telling window into Afghan society over the past thirty-odd years. It's also a moving story of friendship and sacrifice, giving Western readers a rare glimpse into the suffering and mistreatment of Afghan women that began long before the Taliban came to power. Not only does the novel reveal the ruthlessness and pure evil of the Taliban, its chronicle of Afghanistan's bloody, repressive recent history helps demonstrate why we must remain constantly vigilant as the nation's move to democracy inches forward a little bit at a time. Centuries of embedded traditions and cultural proscriptions cannot be changed overnight, yet never again must the women of Afghanistan be forgotten.
Hosseini treats us to two main characters, each of whom embodies the time-honored endurance and suffering of the Afghan woman. Mariam grows up with her mother Nana in a humble home isolated from the hustle and bustle of the nearby city of Herat. Jalil, Mariam’s father, visits once a week and dotes on his little girl, and it is Mariam’s dearest wish to join Jalil’s family in the city. Her mother disabuses her of such notions, offering her child a radically different opinion of her father. Mariam is illegitimate, and Nana tells her that she will never be recognized as Jalil’s daughter. Mariam learns this lesson for herself at age fifteen, setting in motion a dark series of events that soon finds her married to an older man, Rasheed, in the city of Kabul. Scared, lonely, and dealing with a weight of guilt over her mother’s death, Mariam soon finds misfortune permanently affixed to herself as her surly husband grossly mistreats and ignores her.
Meanwhile, young Laila grows up in the same Kabul neighborhood, the daughter of a teacher and a spirited mother. Her constant companion is Tariq, a boy who – despite having lost a leg to a land mine – never hesitates to defend her. Not surprisingly, she falls in love with Tariq, but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan tears them apart just as their love manifests itself physically. As the mujahideen fight the Soviets and then turn on one another in the political vacuum left by the Soviet withdrawal, Kabul becomes a war zone, its days and nights filled with the mortal uncertainty of rocket impacts and gun battles. Fate is particularly unkind to Laila, who ultimately finds herself all alone, injured, and extremely vulnerable. Harboring a great secret in her heart, she reluctantly becomes Rasheed’s second wife. Not surprisingly, Mariam resents this young girl whom Rasheed has brought into her already unhappy home, but in time, after Laila becomes a fellow victim of Rasheed’s disdain, insults, and physical abuse, the two women develop a close relationship, one strong enough to sustain them through even harder times ahead.
The novel takes us through thirty years of tumultuous Afghan history, as seen through the eyes of two remarkable but representative, long-suffering women, from a time when women could basically lead their own lives, through the socio-economically devastating years of the Soviet invasion and the mujahideen resistance, on through the even more destructive years after the Soviets pulled out and Afghan warlords turned upon one another (killing countless innocent civilians in the process), all the way up to the Taliban seizure of power and its displacement by American and Allied forces in the wake of 9/11. As Mariam’s mother taught her, endurance is the key to surviving as a woman in Afghanistan. Increasingly insolated as events unfolded, women such as Mariam and Laila had no one to turn to but each other, as their very humanity was taken away from them by increasingly repressive leaders and their own ever-more-violent husbands. Some women broke under the pressure of so much turmoil and heartache; others fled the country to escape the danger and repression; but women such as Mariam and Laila simply endured in the face of hellish circumstances.
I’m a man, and I know enough not to pretend I understand women, but the power of Hosseini’s eloquent writing produced in me a feeling of real kinship for Mariam, Laila, and Laila’s daughter Aziza. I am quite sure this is as close as I will ever come to truly beginning to appreciate the scale of the Afghan woman’s plight. So many memorable scenes, so many horrible events stand out in the lives of these brave women. The best they could hope for was to be ignored – spared the physical and mental abuse of husbands, and in many cases relieved to hide themselves behind the burquas the Taliban insisted they wear in public. The Taliban stripped them of their very humanity, making them less than slaves, yet these women refused to be crushed by the system, exhibiting a kind of unparalleled courage and self-sacrifice that few men could ever hope to match. History enumerates the crimes of the Taliban, but Hosseini paints a truly compelling portrait of life in a land where flamingoes could not be painted without trousers covering their bare legs and where many citizens risked obscene torture just to obtain black market copies of the movie Titanic.
There is tragedy in A Thousand Splendid Suns – heart-breaking tragedy – yet the story is ultimately an inspirational epic with the power to enlighten the reader spiritually as well as historically. As you read this engrossing novel, all cultural and political barriers separating you from Hosseini’s characters disappear and you cannot help but me moved by the sad fact that our fiction has been many a poor Afghan woman’s reality. This eye-opening read has the power to change your view of the world and your place in it, and that makes it a truly masterful piece of literature.
A Thousand Splendid Suns