|A Thousand Splendid Suns
Author: Khaled Hosseini
Hard Cover, 372 pages
Publisher: Riverhead Books
This is a powerful book. I had already read The Kite Runner, but had not felt compelled to take up Khaled Hosseini’s second work. However, after numerous people suggested to me that it was much better, though harder to read, I decided to take it up. The commentary on the back of the book describes it as “big-hearted”; that “[Love] is the emotion…that suffuses the pages”. I didn’t see that as much, to be honest. This book is a statement of the endurance of people whose lives are bound up in their homes, who cannot escape the pain their homes are built upon. While love is a partial backdrop, solidarity and suffering are the themes. It speaks to the basic human need to look for hope, to desire to cling to life, even though it kills us.
The book is set in Afghanistan, running from the 1970’s into this decade. Herat and Kabul, and the hope to be found in nearby Pakistan, are pivotal. The family life of the book is set against the backdrop of the Soviet occupation, the warlords who replace them, and the rise of the Taliban. One sees history unfold in a way that shocks, where the western impression of the Soviet era is contrasted with the heightened rights of women and the removal of the communist order eventually brings the suffering of Shari’a law. And the often heard name Taliban, so hated and despised in America, is viewed, at least at first, with joy; spoken in glowing terms and with hope. This joy is mixed: for many, it is only a harbinger of worse things.
This book especially highlights the suffering of Afghanistan’s women, disallowed to have any say in the progress of their lives, blown about by the winds of circumstance, held under thumb by the men who rule them. While not specifically attacking the social order, it demonstrates the hardness of heart that turns acts of mercy into acts of power and control, acts of kindness into acts of despicable torture.
To speak of “enjoying” the book would perhaps be a misuse of the word. I thought the text compelling, the events on the whole believable, the descriptions of characters and setting palpable. But it would be hard to read without a slight aversion, as Hosseini documents the abuse of the main characters with strong language. His depiction of Mariam’s father shows a man characterized by a lack of courage, yet loved, even idolized, at the expense of real love. His depiction of the hard-hearted yet self-justifying husband is startling and made me cringe, while at the same time providing a sense that he was not entirely at fault; an understandable creation of his environment, oft-betrayed, yet an arrogant and uncompassionate villain, who twisted acts of mercy into tools of oppression.
The beginning of the book is slow, to say the least. It was a fight to get into the second half of the book. But once there, it was hard to put down, despite the suffering recounted. I thought that there were a number of leaps in the flow that left one wondering if they were not contrived or forced. It left me asking on a few occasions, “Why was that necessary?” Obviously, a writer is free to write whatever flow of action he wants. But sometimes the pain and hurt seemed gratuitous, going too far. As if there could have been a different outcome, that maybe naturally there even would have been. I will not second-guess the narrative and suggest that it is exaggerated. Rather, one shares the hope the women cling to despite a constant awareness that things can only end badly.
That being said, the book ends with a quasi-positive. Similar to the ending of The Kite Runner, there is the possibility of happiness, but it is not yet realized. One wonders if it really will be. Not all ends well. Nor would we find truth in a book where all did end well, most likely. We live in a time when we see life through dark glasses. And maybe with good reason. In that light, A Thousand Splendid Suns will stand as a testament to the pain experienced by two generations – both in Afghanistan, and beyond – those who felt, if almost imperceptibly, the ripples of darkness.
I would give this book ★★★★☆. Powerful narrative, compelling emotion, but it will require a strong stomach (and some patience in the first half).