"How quietly we endure...."
While Khaled Hosseini’s runaway bestselling debut, The Kite Runner, was written from a male perspective and focused on the relationships between men, Hosseini’s second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, is written from a female perspective and focuses on the relationships between women. Also, unlike The Kite Runner, which took place in both Afghanistan and the United States, A Thousand Splendid Suns takes place almost entirely in Kabul. The book begins in 1974, just outside of Herat, with fifteen-year-old Mariam.
Mariam has more than one strike against her. For starters, although she’s the daughter of a wealthy and powerful Herat businessman, Jalil, Mariam is also harami – illegitimate. Rather than living with Jalil, whom she adores, his three wives, and his ten legitimate children, Mariam lives with her mother, Nana, in a hut on a hillside just outside of town.
We get the idea that Nana loves Mariam, but it’s also plain to see that Nana possibly considers Mariam even lower placed than does Jalil – or his wives. Her words to Mariam are harsh and bitter rather than loving and kind, and she never tires of telling her daughter that she:
"...was an illegitimate person who would never have legitimate claim to the things other people had, things such as love, family, home, acceptance."
Nana, I suppose, is only trying to prepare Mariam for her lot in life, but it seems to be an unusually cruel beginning for any child.
Despite her mother’s warnings, Mariam runs away from Nana and makes her appearance at her father’s home. His wives, however, certainly don’t welcome her with open arms. Instead, they marry her off to a man thirty years her senior, Rasheed, a shoemaker from Kabul.
Although Mariam hasn’t grown up to be a physical beauty, she does possess many good qualities that are far more important. Rasheed, however, does not.
Although the monarchy is still in place at the time of Mariam’s marriage, and Kabul is filled with many liberal men, Rasheed isn’t one of them. He insists Mariam wear a burqa and to her credit, she tries to make the best of it.
All is not unhappy for Mariam during the early years of her marriage, however. Despite Rasheed’s insistence that she wear the burqa, Mariam finds Kabul fascinating. She tastes ice cream for the first time. She’s mesmerized by "modern women," women wearing bright lipstick and sunglasses, women walking in high heels and swinging handbags as they rush to work or to school.
All was not unhappy in Mariam's relationship with Rasheed, either. The couple desire children and both look forward to the day when they can welcome their firstborn into the world. When Mariam suffers one miscarriage after another, however, Rasheed becomes, not just coarse, but brutal.
While Part One of A Thousand Splendid Suns is told from Mariam’s viewpoint, Part Two is told from Laila’s. Born in Kabul in 1978, Laila is the cherished daughter of a father who is the opposite of Rasheed. He’s kind, liberal, and modern. He’s an unemployed university lecturer who encourages his daughter to pursue an education, however that education is not to be.
In 1992, the course of Laila’s life is forever changed when Afghanistan falls into civil war, her friend and lover, Tariq flees to Pakistan with his family, and a rocket slams into Laila’s house, killing both of her parents. When Laila regains consciousness, she’s in Rasheed’s home and Mariam is tending to her wounds. The death of Laila’s parents leads us into Part Three, the last section of A Thousand Splendid Suns, and unites Mariam’s story with Laila’s.
Rasheed, now sixty, welcomes Laila’s presence in his home. Surely this young, beautiful teenager, he thinks, can provide him with the son he’s always wanted. He decides to marry her. Mariam, though, despite the horrors of her marriage, feels differently. She resents Laila and wants her to leave. Rasheed doesn’t object.
It is, of course, Laila’s daughter, Aziza, who finally brings Mariam and Laila together and unites them against the thoroughly evil Rasheed.
For the most part, Dr. Hosseini’s prose is far more subtle in this book than it was in The Kite Runner, something I liked. He also captures successfully the thinking and mentality of a teenaged girl in love for the first time. One example of this occurs when the fourteen-year-old Laila thinks of her friend, Tariq.
There’s much tragedy in Afghanistan, and A Thousand Splendid Suns would have rung very, very false had Hosseini not included tragedy in his book. However, Hosseini tempers this tragedy with genuine human affection, with quiet moments of shared togetherness – as when Mariam and Laila share tea.
Hosseini is an old-fashioned storyteller, and he does know how to grab a reader’s interest as well as his heartstrings. Some of the best passages in A Thousand Splendid Suns subtlety contrast Mariam’s life with Laila’s, as seen through Laila’s eyes. Prior to Laila becoming an orphan, she takes very little notice of her neighbor. Mariam was almost invisible to her. To Laila, the older woman is nothing more than "Rasheed’s wife, the woman in the burqa." This subtle bit of characterization drove home for me the wisdom and truth of that rule of writing that says, "Let characters describe other characters."
Where A Thousand Splendid Suns really succeeds isn’t in the big, overriding tragedies, but in the little details. Hosseini is very good at giving us an intimate glimpse of everyday life in Kabul and that glimpse is fascinating. The book is worth a read for these details alone.
In the end, Hosseini writes:
"...every Afghan story is marked by death and loss and unimaginable grief [yet] people find a way to survive, to go on."
This is the universal truth shared by all lives, not just those that can be called Afghan, and it’s why I think the book is loved by people of all countries and cultures.
When all is said and done, those readers who loved The Kite Runner are going to love A Thousand Splendid Suns. No matter what anyone writes, here or anyplace else, A Thousand Splendid Suns, like its predecessor, is going to be a mega bestseller for many, many months to come.