A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
Published by Bloomsbury 2007
384pp My rating 4/5
I was attracted to this book by its cover's myriad shades of yellow, from the palest lemon to the deepest ochre, with tiny bursts of gold and hints of gamboge and orpiment; not a thousand shades but certainly a splendid array. Yellow is the colour of hope, happiness and joy and, despite the terrible events described in the book, there is an underlying optimism that cannot be destroyed.
Unlike most people, I have not read Khaled Hosseini's acclaimed début novel, The Kite Runner and my knowledge of Afghanistan is limited to what I have gleaned from news reports of conflict, oppression and drought. I hoped this book would help me to understand more about the people and how they live in those terrible conditions and I was not disappointed.
A Thousand Splendid Suns is the story of the relationship between two women of different generations and backgrounds, a relationship which begins with hostility, slowly grows into friendship and eventually develops into a profound mother-daughter love. As we begin to understand these two women, what they have to endure and how they contrive to survive, we start to understand the enormous cultural difference between the Afghan people and ourselves. Khaled Hosseini succeeds in taking us right inside the experience of Mariam and Laila and I have to admit here that, following my usual practice of not reading the blurb or any reviews before starting a book, I was half way through before my surprising discovery that the author was a man.
Mariam is the elder of the two women. The story begins when she is a young child, living in poverty and isolation with her unmarried, epileptic mother outside Herat. Mariam's only happiness comes from the weekly visit of her wealthy father, who gives her trinkets and sends food but denies her the things she longs for, education and a place in his family. Mariam's misjudgement of her father's character leads to tragedy and the first of a sequence of events where her gender and poverty leave her powerless to choose her own way in life.
Married against her will to Rasheed, an older, brutish man, Mariam is taken to Karbul, forced to wear the burka and to live, once more, isolated from the rest of society. Years pass, Mariam's pregnancies all end in miscarriage and her husband treats her with increasing cruelty. There we lose sight of her as we are introduced to Laila, the darling daughter of a 'modern' Afghan family. Laila has all that Mariam lacked, education, a loving family and freedom from the more radical aspects of Muslim law. A surprising benefit of the Soviet occupation is the opportunity for women to have access to education and employment.
Life changes dramatically for Laila as the Soviets depart and the Mujahideen fail to form an effective government. No longer having a common enemy, they break into warring factions, bringing destruction and misery to the people of Karbul. Laila's happy, carefree life is tragically changed and she finds herself subjected to the same cruel treatment as Mariam, at the hands of Rasheed. The two women are brought together and the rest of the story reveals their growing mutual respect and affection, their courage and endurance.
Hosseini explains the political situation in Afghanistan in so far as it impacts on the lives of the two women: the chaos of the indiscriminate shelling of the city, the personal tragedies and then the horrific Taliban regime. It is a simplified presentation but it has given me enough information to make sense of what I now see in the newsreels.
This is a compelling read; perhaps not great literature but the characters are engaging and the pace never slackens. I found myself thinking of Thomas Hardy's novels as I read A Thousand Splendid Suns; the young Mariam makes a wrong choice which has disastrous consequences and, like a Hardy character, she is set on a path ruled by fate, with no hope of escaping the course of events. There is a sort of happy ending for Laila but it lacks conviction, a bit of wishful thinking perhaps on the part of the writer, who doesn't quite share Hardy's fatalism.