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A Thousand Splendid Suns

 

A Thousand Splendid Suns (Khaled Hosseini)
Reviewed by Theresa O’Kelly

“A Thousand Splendid Suns” is a beautiful, compelling and haunting novel. While his first novel “The Kite Runner” focused on fathers and sons and friendships between men, his latest novel focuses on mothers and daughters and friendships between women.
In this novel, Hosseini chronicles thirty years of the history of Afghanistan while also providing a deeply moving story of family and friendship and the salvation to be found in love.
Hosseini described the inspiration behind this book as follows:
“In Kabul, I spoke to a lot of people, hotel doormen, traffic cops, vendors, waiters, people in the government, doctors, nurses etc. I heard stories about women who had been raped, beaten, imprisoned, humiliated, women who had seen their husbands blown to pieces, seen their kids starve to death. It was then that I saw the devastating effect that anarchy and extremism had had on these women. I saw for the first time, the enormity of the suffering that these women had endured. And I came away humbled by the fight these women had in them, by their resilience and their courage. When I sat down to write “A Thousand Splendid Suns” early in 2004, I kept hearing those voices in my head, I kept seeing those faces. And so I think that to a large degree, this book was inspired by the collective hardships, struggles, by the collective hopes and dreams of those women I met and spoke to. It’s my tribute to a group of people who have remained strong and resilient in the face of incredible hardship.”
The novel is divided into four parts. The first part deals with the life of Mariam who is the scorned illegitimate daughter of a powerful businessman.
When her mother commits suicide she is married off to a much older widower Rasheed who is a middle class shoemaker in Kabul. After several miscarriages she is treated with contempt by her husband and lives in fear of his changing moods and volatile temperament.
In part two we are introduced to Laila, a bright well educated girl who at the age of fourteen loses both her parents during the civil war in Afghanistan. She is rescued from the rubble by Rasheed and Mariam.
In part three we observe the growing friendship between Laila and Mariam. After being persuaded that Tariq, her childhood sweetheart is dead, Laila agrees to become Rasheed’s partner after she discovers that she is pregnant with Tariq’s child. When she gives birth to a baby girl, Rasheed is bitterly disappointed and starts to treat her also with contempt. After an initially hostile relationship, Mariam and Laila become firm friends. Mariam treats Laila like a daughter and takes great delight in helping to look after her little girl. The two women join forces against Rasheed whose violent misogyny is endorsed by custom and law. By this time the Taliban have risen to power in Afghanistan and severely restrict the rights of women. While giving birth to her second child, Laila is forced to undergo a caesarean without an anaesthetic. Mariam eventually murders Rasheed in order to rescue Laila from a severe beating. She agrees to accept responsibility for the murder and face the consequences while Laila moves to Pakistan to start a new life with Tariq who has returned home to find her.
The final section of the novel is concerned with Laila and her family. They return to Kabul and she becomes a teacher at orphanage where she had previously been forced by Rasheed to abandon her daughter.
While many of the scenes in the book depict the harrowing effects of soviet occupation, civil war and Taliban rule, Hosseini also successfully captures the beauty of Afghanistan in a delightfully lyrical manner. He is a powerful storyteller and the picture he paints of events in his homeland are vivid and memorable. His prose is plain and straightforward and his well scripted dialogues serve to heighten the tension on many occasions throughout the novel. While the novel has been criticised for its occasional excess of emotion and also its facile ending, it still stands as a fascinating testament to Afghani suffering and strength.