A Tale of Survival and Friendship

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A Thousand Splendid Suns By Khaled HosseiniIf there were a library that organised its books by theme rather than alphabetically or by broad genre, the shelf labelled ‘Happy Books About Afghanistan’ would be one of the emptiest in the shop. A Thousand Splendid Suns would not be on that shelf since it’s almost unremittingly bleak. But by the standards of other books I’ve read about Afghanistan, it’s only scratching the surface.

The Main Characters

Mariam is the illegitimate daughter of Jalil, the cinema owner in the town of Hemat, a man with three official wives who still couldn’t resist dabbling with her mother. She and her disappointed and epileptic mother live alone in a hut outside the town. Jalil visits every week, brings her gifts and teaches her to fish. Mariam dreams of a day when she’ll be accepted by his family and live with her siblings in their fine house in the local town. In her quest to get recognition for her status as his daughter, Mariam pushes her mother one step too far with tragic consequences. With no other place to go, the wives take her in but they don’t plan for her to stay long enough for the whiff of scandal to spread around the town. She’s quickly married off to an old man who owes her father a favour, and who whisks her away to Kabul where she can cause no further embarrassment to her family.

Rasheed was widowed and lost his son and so was happy to take on Mariam as his wife. Initially he’s not a bad sort; fairly kind and well-meaning though very ‘traditional’ in some of his views about the importance of a wife’s honour. As time passes and Mariam fails to give him what he most wants, his bitterness manifests itself in violence and resentment.

Laila is the daughter of one of Mariam and Rasheed’s neighbours and her mother is a woman who really can’t deal with the changes in Afghanistan. Laila has grown up with a lot of the advantages Mariam could only have dreamt of – parents, education and even a boyfriend, one-legged Tariq, the boy she loves and wants to spend her life with. But war takes Tariq and his family away from Kabul and she finds herself compromised. With no other way out, she goes to live with Mariam and Rasheed and becomes Rasheed’s second wife.

“In a radio interview Hosseini admitted that A Thousand Splendid Suns had been a much harder book for him to write than the Kite Runner because it was written from the female viewpoint.”

Nothing I’ve mentioned above will go much beyond the plot you could get off the book jacket and I don’t want to give away too much. Not because there’s all that much to give away because sadly there isn’t. There are few major twists and turns and even fewer surprises. Even the plot developments that are intended to shock and surprise were all things I’d guessed long before they cropped up. There’s little of the long-term plot building that Hosseini showed in the Kite Runner. The twist in the tail of the story wasn’t really much of surprise either.

The key theme of the novel is that women – hoorah – seem to be able to get on with each other regardless of what crap life throws in their paths. It’s about indomitable spirit and the importance of having something to live for and how no matter who happens to be invading or ruling your country at the time, a woman’s lot is never easy. So far, so predictable.

The interesting thing about the book is not so much the plot as the background. It takes place against a backdrop of a traumatic time in Afghan history (Has there ever been an untraumatic time, I wonder?) in the late 20th Century. We live with the characters through the end of monarchy, the invasion of the Soviet army, their replacement by the Taliban and the US-led action after 9/11. Whilst all this is going along in the background, it fails to have the same level of impact that the same events had when recounted in the Kite Runner.

What did I think?

It’s not a bad novel but it’s not the best of its kind by a long way. There are biographies and autobiographies of women caught up in the Afghan conflict that are far more shocking than anything Hosseini was able to create from his imagination. His focus is on physical violence whilst the truly shocking tales of abuse and cruelty towards women almost always identify that psychological cruelty delivers a tougher blow than a husband’s fist or a Taliban whipping someone with a radio aerial. If you have read any other books about Afghanistan – I’m thinking in particular of a real stunner called ‘Afghanistan, Where God Only Comes to Weep’ by Siba Shakib – there is nothing in A Thousand Splendid Suns that will shock you. Similarly, if you’ve read any of the ‘miserable ethnic upbringing’ genre – think of something like Adeline Yen Mah’s ‘Fallen Leaves’ for example – then the pain and suffering of this book is light by comparison. Yes, the Russians were nasty and the Taliban were pretty hot on beating women caught out on their own but that’s unlikely to be a surprise to most readers.

Can Men Write as Women?

Undeniably the answer to that question is yes. But in this case, the answer is ‘yes, but’. In a radio interview Hosseini admitted that A Thousand Splendid Suns had been a much harder book for him to write than the Kite Runner because it was written from the female viewpoint. Apparently it took him twice as long and in my opinion, the result is about half as good. I’ll await the contempt of readers who don’t accept the ‘men can’t write as women’ and ‘women can’t write as men’ argument and in general it’s not one that I accept either. However, in this case, it just doesn’t deliver. He’s not comfortable in the shoes of a woman and he missed the detail and emotion that I would have expected after reading the Kite Runner. It’s not a BAD book – not at all. It’s just not in the same league as its predecessor. The violence and emotional torture of the Kite Runner got watered down somewhere in the transition from the tale of a young boy to the tale of two women.

In Conclusion

If you are hoping for something as good as the Kite Runner you will probably be disappointed. If you’ve read other stories set in the same time and place, then you’ll probably be disappointed. But it’ll still be a massive best-seller, regardless of what I or anyone else think of it.

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Thousand Splendid Suns (A)
by Khaled Hosseini

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Written by koshkha