A Journalist's Archive

A Thousand Splendid Suns
Khaled Hosseini
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          A fiction writer's first novel rarely makes the best sellers list, but "Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini did because he produced a compelling story with believable characters.  He pulled American readers into a foreign culture, held their attention, and left them yearning to learn more about Hosseini's native country, Afghanistan.  

          His second novel, "A Thousand Splendid Suns," is even more powerful than his first.  The novel covers 30 years of war in Afghanistan, from the Soviet invasion to their defeat by the American-backed Mujahedeen, leading to civil war and the rise of the Taliban.

          Born in Kabul, Hosseini moved to the United States in 1980, but his mission is to educate readers about Afghanistan's history and culture - warts and all.  It takes talent, skill, and an understanding of the human spirit to capture an audience and compel readers to keep turning the page, especially when the horrific subject matter is the subjugation of women under the rule of the Taliban.    Few authors can pull it off, but Hosseini does it by not placating readers; the characters are fictional but his description of life in Afghanistan is brutally honest.  He never attempts to sugarcoat the reality Afghani women experienced under the oppressive regime.

             Hosseini brilliantly contrasts the childhoods of two female characters, Mariam, a harami, the Afghani word for an illegitimate child, and Laila, a girl raised in a liberal family who has the advantage of a good education.  

          From the very beginning, Mariam has no chance for a "better" life.  She is the result of the coupling between a housekeeper and a wealthy business owner, Jalil.  There's no room in Jalil's family of three wives and nine legitimate children for Mariam.  She lives in a shack with her mother Nana.  When Mariam begs to go to school Nana replies, "What's the sense schooling a girl like you?  It's like shining a spittoon."  Nana insists, "There is only one skill a woman like you and me needs in life, and they don't teach it in school."  Nana says Mariam must learn to endure. 

          While her words appear to be harsh, they ring true for Mariam, who at age 15 is forced to marry a 42 year old shoemaker from Kabul.  Rasheed, Mariam's husband, demands that she must abide by strict Islamic customs, including wearing a burqa in public and hiding upstairs when male guests visit her home.  After one pregnancy after another ends in miscarriage, Rasheed becomes more demanding and abusive.

            Readers expect the privileged Laila to escape the fate suffered by Mariam, but Hosseini's story-line shows that education and a loving family make little difference to women living in a culture that gives them less power than the male children they produce.

          Tariq, Laila's childhood sweetheart, flees with his family to Pakistan as the Taliban gain control of Kabul.  At this point, Hosseini skillfully intertwines the lives of the two main characters.  Laila's parents are killed in a rocket attack, and with no family or friends to support her she is forced to become Rasheed's second wife.

          A bond slowly develops between the two wives, as they battle to protect Laila's daughter against Rasheed's abusive tirades.   But Hosseini illustrates how the ruling culture shows no mercy towards women, abused or otherwise.  To some western readers it may seem that he goes too far, but then we are pulled back into reality when he incorporates the factual account of female doctors and their patients under Taliban rule.

          The novel ends on an up-beat note in the post-Taliban era.  Or does it?  Perhaps Hosseini is waiting until history writes the rest of the story.  This story is certainly worthy of a sequel; let's hope it's one in which Afghani females gain more power over their destiny.  But no matter how Afghanistan's history unfolds, readers can rely on Hosseini to deliver the truth in his own style - though fiction.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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