Book review: A Thousand Splendid Suns (Khaled Hosseini)

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A war narrative. A love story. Realism, perhaps. Maybe even tragedy. Hosseini’s second major novel is strangely difficult to categorise. Genre almost seems irrelevant, because the content is of such importance.

A Thousand Splendid Suns focuses on the shocking experiences of two women from Afghanistan. The novel begins with the tragic early life of Mariam, who is named a harami (bastard) child, and is outcaste with her mother, Nana, by her wealthy father. Laila, the second woman, has a very different upbringing. She receives a good education with career prospects and is simultaneously starting to realise her love for her neighbour, Tariq.

However, despite this opposition of backgrounds, under the fire of the Russia vs. Taliban conflict, both women end up in the same position as the unfortunate wives of Rasheed, a shoe-maker from Kabul. Although initially Rasheed seems pleasant enough to both women, it soon becomes apparent that he vehemently enforces his strict beliefs about how his wives should behave. A common hatred of Rasheed proves the basis for a strong mother-daughter relationship between the women as they plot their escape from the ever-tightening hold he takes over them. Sadly, escape proves impossible and only occurs at the very end of the novel through a great sacrifice.

With suicide, rape and domestic abuse as central events, it is not a read for the faint-hearted. It is, however, a thoroughly entertaining novel and its chief joy lies in how it keeps surprising you. Laila is an extremely active character (both mentally and physically) in her rejection of Rasheed’s rules, whereas Mariam appears to cower in passivity. However, the ending sees Mariam undertaking a courageous sacrifice which allows Laila to escape, proving once again the danger of prejudging. Rasheed is also a very interesting character. Although, it cannot be disputed that he is a vicious patriarchal bully, the back story Hosseini creates for him perhaps explains, if not excuses, his actions.

Whilst reading this novel, I was not only entertained but educated. Learning about the various occupations of Afghanistan provided a fascinating historical background to the microcosm of Mariam and Laila’s world. It showed the effects of the different regimes upon women and explored some fascinating issues.

Two governments rule over Afghanistan during the narrative, communists initially possessing control before being defeated by the Taliban. Whilst under Communist rule women had greater freedom to wear what they wanted and to receive an education (as Laila does), the Taliban remove this freedom completely. Nevertheless, it is important to note that under both rules, Mariam is subjected to the same horrific matrimonial experiences from Rasheed. This not only highlights the troubled private lives of many Afghani women, but also draws the reader’s attention to the worrying number of women the world over who powerlessly suffer against domestic abuse. Hosseini clearly has a political agenda here.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is a nail-biting read which will have you on the edge of both your seat and your emotions, and I definitely cannot wait to read Hosseini’s other best-seller The Kite Runner.

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