Book Review: ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ by Khaled Hosseini

Recently I have been in a bit of a reading frenzy to alleviate some of the current boredom and drudgery of the life of a job hunter. I had almost forgotten how much I enjoy reading, but it's all come back now. So much so that I have read 4 books in two weeks! I reviewed one of them over on my other blog, Life...and Living It, which you can check out here. So here comes my second book review since I was, like 13 or something. Lol. Hope you like it!

Title: A Thousand Splendid Suns

Author: Khaled Hosseini

First published: 2007

Story: The book set, in Afghanistan, starts with Mariam, who is a harami (tr. Bastard, illegitimate child) living an isolated life in a hut on the outskirts of a small village with her sick mother. Mariam and her mother are outcasts due to her mother's illness and Mariam's illegitimacy and this has left her mother a bitter, spiteful old woman. Mariam's father is a wealthy man of Herat with three wives and ten legitimate children who comes to visit his daughter once a week. Despite her mother's disapproval, Mariam builds a strong relationship with her father. Following a broken promise from her father for Mariam's fourteenth birthday, the child sets out to find her dad. With her mother's threats and pleadings that she cannot survive even a day without her daughter ringing in her ears, Mariam leaves the village, somehow making her way to her father's house in Herat. She refuses to leave until she sees him but he will not see her. The following day, after spending the night sleeping in front of his house, she is chauffeured home, where she is met with the suicide of her mother. In the midst of Mariam's blame-filled mourning her father and his wives arrange for her to marry a widower many years her senior and be hurriedly moved to Kabul to keep her harami shame from them. Married life starts off relatively well for her and her husband, Rasheed, who is kind and caring towards her. He is especially attentive when she falls pregnant and eager for a boy to replace the one who died from his first wife. Mariam miscarries and suddenly Rasheed changes towards her. He becomes brutal and harsh, and this worsens with the passage of time and each of her six further miscarriages.

The story then cuts to the life of Laila, an outstandingly beautiful and intelligent girl born to a teacher and his wife who live on the same street as Rasheed and Mariam. She was born amid political changes in Afghanistan when the Soviet's took over and many Afghan men go to jihad (tr. Holy war) against the new Soviet order including her two older brothers when she is just two years old. Under the Soviet's women, particularly in metropolitan areas like Kabul, have many freedoms to teach and to learn and Laila's dad encourages his daughter to take advantage of this. By the time she is nine, her mother resents her father for allowing the boys to go fight jihad while he stayed home. She pays Laila no attention, instead keeping vigil for her sons. So Laila grows up with the love of her father and Tariq, her childhood friend. When word reaches them that the boys have died, Laila's mother falls apart and tells her daughter the only reason she has not killed herself is so she can stay in Kabul to see the day when her son's enemies are defeated. Eventually the day comes that the Soviet's are pushed out of Afghanistan the Mujahideen many factions that fought against them come together to form an interim government. This does not last and soon they are fighting amongst themselves along ethnic lines. This fighting ravages Kabul and people close to Laila and Tariq are killed or run to neighbouring Pakistan for safety. When Tariq comes to Laila to tell her that his family are also about to leave, things become emotional and end up sleeping together. He asks her to marry and come with him but she cannot leave her father alone with her bitter, resentful mother because she is all he has left. So he leaves and she is shattered. Then after Laila is almost shot a few weeks later her mother decides that she can reluctantly leave Kabul and the family plan to go the same route as Tariq's did. Laila is estatic, believing that she will be able to find Tariq but in the middle of leaving, a rocket falls on their house and her parents are killed.

The orphaned fifteen year-old and now partially deaf Laila, comes to live in the household of Mariam and Rasheed. Rasheed decides that he will take Laila as a second wife and after a visitor come to tell Laila that Tariq died in a rocket explosion. Despite Mariam's pleas to her husband and anger at Laila, the girl agrees to the marriage immediately as she has realised that she is pregnant. Rasheed is as loving and caring to Laila as he was to Mariam in her first pregnancy, even more so in fact due to her outstanding beauty. However, Laila gives birth to a girl, Aziza, and Rasheed is furious and turns against Laila just as he did to Mariam. Over time Mariam begins to bond with the Aziza and in this way to two wives become close. They plan to run away but are caught in the process and returned to Rasheed who beats them senseless. Meanwhile the political situation is Afghanistan is charged because a generation of religious Afghan's raised in Pakistan have come together to put an end to the Mujahideen infighting and put Afghanistan back together, they are the Taliban. When the Taliban finally arrive in Kabul people are happy and hopeful that the fortunes of Afghanistan are finally turning. The Taliban rule turns out to be worse than that of the Mujahideen warlords, there are massive restrictions on freedom such as having to practise Islam or face death, and no frivolous activities such as singing, dancing or watching TV are allowed. Women specifically had even further restrictions, they were forbidden to work, must wear a burqa (tr: full body covering, showing only the eyes) as opposed to a hijab (tr. Headscarf), forbidden to go to school, to leave the house without familial male escort and are even forbidden to laugh in public. In this context the unhappy Laila falls pregnant again and this time bares him his longed-for son, Zalmai, after this he has no further interest in her. But the country is facing a three-year draught induced famine and when Rasheed's shop burns down the family are soon fighting starvation. The situation gets so bad that Laila is forced to send Aziza to an orphanage and when Rasheed will not take her she has to sneak her way there often beaten badly for being out without a male escort.

A man comes to visit when Rasheed is out at work and Zalmai immediately takes a disliking to him. When Laila turns to see who it is, she realises it Tariq. Rasheed had paid a man to come and tell Laila Tariq was dead because he had wanted to marry her. When Rasheed returns from work Zalmai tells his father about Tariq showing up at which point Rasheed locks his son in a room and proceeds to beat Laila with the buckle side of his belt but Mariam jumps on him raining punches. When he turns to fight her, Laila smashes something into his head so he turns to strangle her, even with Mariam punching him from behind he keeps on, even when Laila's face turns blue. So Mariam gets a shovel and hits him hard once and then again when she realises that he will kill them all. The second blow is fatal. Mariam tells Laila that she and the children must run away with Tariq to Pakistan but she must stay behind and own up to Rasheed's murder or else they will all be hunted down and killed. Laila is distraught but Mariam is okay because she did it for Laila and the children to be free. Laila and her children leave with Tariq and Mariam is executed for her crime. Laila and Tariq marry when the reach Pakistan and live there until the Taliban is beaten by the allied forces. Following this they return to help rebuild their country.

Review: I do not have the tendency to cry when I read a book or watch a film that is sad but with this book I was sorely tempted. It is a beautifully crafted tale, complexly and expertly written. It tells a political history, a societal history, and a love story all at the same time but amazingly I feel that no one story loses out. By the end of this book I understood a bit more the political complexities that exist in Afghanistan and how and why the ordinary Afghan may feel conflicted over what is happening there. This side is told in a non-judgemental way that does not feel as though it is trying to make excuses for people it just explains and leaves me to come to my own conclusions. The social history of women in Afghanistan is also well chronicled in this book and Hosseini makes a good case in this book for the plight of women in his country. And although I do not disagree with what his book is saying about the maltreatment of women I feel it is slightly preachy on this. Or perhaps it is the way is should seem in the context of the story of two women? Nonetheless, I stand by my view that on this issue the book is a bit preachy and I must admit that if I had read the book without knowing the author I would have immediately guessed it was written by a man. The accounts are as honest as they can be but the complaint of how women were treated seems to more like those that would come from a man who empathises with their position then from a woman who lived it. The love story too is complex. Laila's story shows how love for your family and your children interplays with the way people are allowed to live their life and can constrain them from the most direct route to the happiness that is staring them in the face. I like that. It makes the love story real somehow. It's not just a case of star-crossed lovers overcoming their obstacles and love wins out in the end, or they die heroically for their love. Instead once they finally get together, Laila and Tariq still have to deal with the losses that brought them to that point. The death of their parents, the effects of Tariq's troubles on his health, the pain of guilt for lying to Zalmai about the truth of his father's death and the guilt for the sacrifice Mariam made for them all, all of these things make their love story more real and beautiful in the context of the world they lived in. I applaud Hosseini for this book which is a good way to make the average 'westerner' open his eyes and mind to what actually happened to Afghanistan, telling him things about the conflict that he otherwise would not have known. It is so unfortunate that this book will forever be compared to Hosseini's first book because I think it comes second to it. I prefer his first book, The Kite Runner, if I am honest, but nevertheless this is a thoroughly uncomfortable but damn good read. I put it down only to sleep or go to work and read the 360+ pages in less than two days!

Ratings: I give this book four little nsoromma's out of five. (4/5 stars)


Shameless said...

I love this review! mainly coz i bought this book right before my final exam a few months ago and let a friend borrow it. i never got it back so i nvr got to read it but you've made me want to go out and get it again!

Nsoromma...Child of the Heavens said...

I do think this book is pretty great so I'm happy I made you want to read it again! You really should go get it again

Sankofa said...

Um I borrowed this book from Madeline and never got around to reading it (as usual)! I think it's because although I looooved The Kite Runner, it also depressed the hell out of me for a few days. I wasn't ready to depress myself again when Life was doing a good job of that by itself. Will definitely read it though (when I'm in an exceptional mood!).

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