When I reviewed The Kite Runner a few weeks back, I promised a swift read and review of Khaled Hosseini’s follow-up novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns. And here it is.
A Thousand Splendid Suns is Hosseini’s attempt to illustrate the lives of Afghan women in the past half-century. As he did with The Kite Runner, he takes us on a journey that centers on the lives of two very different Afghan women, but also encompasses the turbulent history of the country in that time and its effect on their lives.
The story starts with the life of Mariam, a 15 year old girl in Herat who lives with her bitter mother. She is the harami child of a local businessman, illegitimate because he had an affair with her mother, a servant in his house. He already had three wives. When Mariam steals away to visit her father one day, she’s refused entry to his house. By the time she returns home, her mother is hanging from a tree.
Now orphaned, her father is quick to marry her off to the first man who expresses an interest. Unfortunately, that man is Rasheed, a misogynistic bully many years her senior who takes her home and subjects her to a life of strict rules and introduces her to the burka. Things are passable at first, but as Mariam continues to miscarry Rasheed’s babies, he becomes increasingly abusive towards her.
It’s here that Hosseini’s style smooths out the brutality. It starts out with verbal insults, then Mariam has a tooth punched out, maybe more the next time. The gradual escalation of Rasheed’s temper is introduced until the violence he shows toward his wife becomes – to the reader and Mariam herself – commonplace.
The book moves on to Part 2 at this point, introducing the character of Laila, a girl who is born around the time Mariam moves to Kabul to live with Rasheed. Her family are far more liberal, and Laila’s mother is not forced to wear a burka. Her husband is a bookish man, who encourages his daughter to educate herself and gives her hopes of travel and a career.
Of course, the experienced Hosseini reader will know that this blissful state of affairs will not last long. And as the political tensions in Kabul escalate, a rocket attack on the family home kills Laila’s parents, leaving her wounded. She’s dug out of the rubble and taken to Rasheed and Mariam’s house, where the two of them tend to her wounds and look after her.
At this point, the stories of Mariam and Laila begin to intertwine – all is not well at first, because Rasheed soon starts turning his attention to Laila. Mariam is incensed, but knows she has no say in his taking another wife. Even though Rasheed is so old at this point, we expect Laila to reject his offer of marriage, but she accepts without hesitation. This is a shocking turn of events, but we soon discover that Laila is pregnant to her childhood lover who moved away from the neighbourhood not long before her parents died.
Mariam is initially distrustful of Laila for stealing her husband of all things – by this stage, she should be grateful that someone else would be attracting his romantic advances. However, after Laila gives birth to Aziza, Mariam starts to warm to her more and the two start to bond. However, Rasheed’s reign of terror begins to extend to Laila, although sometimes Laila ill-advisedly fights back. She’s cunning, though, and plots to leave Rasheed, stealing little bits of money from him here and there in preparation.
The scene where Laila, Mariam and Aziza leave Rasheed is heartbreaking. You can feel their spirits lift with the hope of escaping this horrible man once and for all, then those hopes are dashed when they’re double-crossed by a man at the bus terminus. The two women are returned to face Rasheed’s wrath. Their lives continue in this way for a few years, and their lot continues to deteriorate as hunger sets in and Rasheed loses his job, forcing him to spend more time around the house. Laila has another child.
Matters are made worse when Tariq, Laila’s lost boyfriend arrives at their door. It turns out that years earlier, Rasheed had paid a man to come to the house and tell Laila that Tariq was dead. It’s a twist of the knife too far this time. Rasheed is incensed when he hears that Tariq has been in his house and lashes out at Mariam. There’s a scuffle and as Laila is being choked by an enraged Rasheed, Mariam realises that she has to be decisive. She runs to the shed, finds a shovel and lodges it in Rasheed’s head.
It’s at this point the story changes. Rasheed’s fate was sealed almost from the moment that he first punched a tooth out of Mariam’s mouth. Some have complained that Hosseini writes his characters in a polarised manner – citing Rasheed’s having no redeemable qualities whatsoever as an example. I personally found that worked for me. There were points in the narrative where I felt terrible for the women, almost ashamed to be a man myself. There were times when I would have gladly wielded a shovel above Rasheed’s head myself to spare Mariam and Laila any further indignities.
As a reader, I was plaintively hoping for sympathy for Mariam, mercy for a woman whose life has been so miserable. A seemingly kindly judge is sorrowful about the life she’s endured, but quotes Sharia law at her. It’s when the two words “Ghazi Stadium” are uttered that my heart sank for her. Readers of The Kite Runner will know what atrocities were committed there.
I actually didn’t take any comfort at all from the fourth part of the book, which describes Laila’s escape with Tariq, marrying again and settling down and their subsequent return to Kabul. Although it’s clear that the author has grand hopes for the city and perhaps the country, I was still filled with sadness for Mariam and the quiet dignity of her sacrifice. The words of her resentful mother from the beginning of the book still ringing in my ears (“Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman.”), it’s hard to feel elated when someone has thanklessly endured such hardship without an acceptable level of balance towards joy and happiness. It would have been nice to see Mariam as the grandmother to Laila’s children in the end. But I guess that would be the idealists ending to the story.
Once again though, Hosseini has delivered a book that not only educates ignorant Westerners like me – I’m not being facetious, before The Kite Runner, I had a rudimentary grasp of the situation in Afghanistan. Seeing the country through the eyes of a native is a revelatory experience. Even the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas is enough to fill one with a deep-seated loathing of extremists – I recommend following that link to see before and after pictures of what was called “a crime against culture”.
Reading Hosseini’s notes afterward is a fantastic insight to the untold story behind the book – the differences between progressive Kabul and the more conservative rural areas of Afghanistan and the various attempts to bring equal rights to women are just some of the topics he talks about. As an author, he realises there’s an interest there that goes beyond what he can tell in his narrative, and I’m glad he included the afterword, acknowledgements and postscript sections.
I heartily recommend this to other readers who are looking for something a little bit more substantial. It’ll certainly open your eyes to Afghanistan and you might see something you recognise in the humanity of the ‘strange foreigners’ who live there.