Khaled Hosseini’s second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, is a story of two women and their lives in Afghanistan over the past 30 years spanning such tumultous events as the Soviet takeover of Afghanistan, the years of Mujahideen resistance, and the rise and fall of the Taliban.
Mariam is an illegitimate child who is forced to marry Rasheed, an abusive husband at age 15. Rasheed is an ugly, cruel man who breaks Mariam’s spirit time and again. Laila is an attractive girl who lives just up the street. She is born to educated, liberal parents and enjoys the freedoms Mariam is restricted from. She has a boyfriend, but their plans to marry get derailed when he has to leave the country and move to Pakistan as a refugee. Although he offers to marry Laila and take her with him, she opts to stay back with her parents who need her.
During the wars of the 1980’s and 1990’s, a rocket destroys Laila’s home and family. Finding herself alone and pregnant with her boyfriend’s child, she decides to accept Rasheed’s offer of marriage and becomes his second wife. The story then deals with how Mariam and Laila form an almost impossible friendship, and how they support each other through all their travails.
This book does a wonderful job of giving glimpses and insight into the daily life in Afghanistan through the eyes of two very different women who become friends and allies.
I was very apprehensive to pick up this book. I hadn’t much liked “The Kite Runner”, and all that I read about this book made me feel it would be a tear-jerker, overly emotional kind of novel. The sort I normally try to avoid.
Anyway, I did eventually read it, and I must admit that I loved this one so much better than The Kite Runner. I really loved the 2 main characters. They are not spineless at all, but each show maturity and strength in the midst of unimaginable hardships. The ending of the book is superb, redemptive, and hopeful.
Khaled Hosseini paints a stark picture of what it means to be a woman in a culture where they are valued only for how well they keep a house, and how many sons they produce. A culture where they are subject to the whims of men. Those that value them as worthwhile human beings are welcome oases – they seem to be the exceptions in their world, rather than the norm.
To my surprise, there were also some subtle humorous passages in the book.
There is a hilarious aside in the book about a painter who is forced to draw pants on his paintings of flamingos to hide their nudity. I also loved reading about how people worked around the Taliban ban on TVs by burying it in the garden during raids.
What horrified me in the novel was the actuality of how rubbish daily life really was under the Taliban regime – no TV, no cinema, no books (apart from Islamic religious texts), no kite flying, full burqas, no cosmetic use, women could not travel without a man to escort them. What on earth did people do for recreation? I mean all the simple pleasures of life were taken away.
I am not even looking at this from a gender perspective. Life would have been hellish for men too, I am sure.
There are some nice bits of Islamic poetry and songs scattered through the novel, which I loved.
I will be posting a longer poem in a separate post, but I thought I would end this review with an excerpt from this shorter, very lovely ghazal that was included in this book, and which epitomizes its very spirit. This ghazal is by someone called Hafez:
Joseph shall return to Canaan, grieve not,
Hovels shall turn to rose garden, grieve not,
If a flood should arrive to drown all that’s alive,
Noah is your guide in the typhoon’s eye, grieve not.
In short, this book is every bit as splendid as the title suggests. Go read!
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