In this issue:
A Thousand Splendid Suns speaks deeply to the universal human spirit and the values of patience and loyalty and hope and honesty in the face of overwhelming odds
The Rest of Her Life is an event-driven novel about a family’s reaction to tragedy. Getting Rid of Matthew is a fun read that manages also to be quite touching
A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS
By Khaled Hosseini, © 2007
Riverhead Books (Penguin Group); Hardback, 367 pp
It is a great delight to read a novelist’s second book and discover that it is at least as good as his first. With A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini has risen to that challenge, and been found equal to it.
The action takes place in Afghanistan, as it did in his brilliant first novel, The Kite Runner, but this book is a very different kind of story. Structured in four parts, it is the story of two women living in a war-torn country, covering a period from the mid-twentieth century to the present.
The story begins with the harami (bastard) child of Nana, who is a maid in a house in the city of Herat. The father, a wealthy businessman, already has three wives and several children. When his wives find out about the maid’s pregnancy, he gives in to their urging to send her away. He has his sons build her a little shack in a small clearing above a tiny village. The father, however, does not completely abandon the child, whose name is Mariam. He comes once a week to see her, and as she grows older, she lives for those visits. Her mother, Nana, is a difficult, bitter, and controlling woman, either a real epileptic or a convincing hypochondriac who uses her illnesses to control her child.
When her 15th birthday approaches, Mariam asks her father to take her to Herat and to go with her to his movie theatre, where Pinocchio is playing. He finally gives in to her begging, and tells her that he’ll be back the following week to take her to the cinema.
When he does not show up as promised, Mariam decides to run away and find him. Nana announces that if Mariam goes, it will kill her, but by then, Mariam is used to her mother’s threats, and doesn’t believe them. She makes her own way to Herat and searches out her father’s house. Although she catches a glimpse of him looking out the window, she is told that he is not home. No amount of staying on the doorstep produces an effect, and at last his driver simply lifts her into the car to take her home. .
Upon her return, she discovers that her mother has committed suicide. Her guilt is overwhelming.
She is taken into her father’s house, but there is no refuge there. His wives allow her to stay for a few sad days and then marry her off to a much older man, a widower from Kabul who has lost not only his wife, but his young son.
Her husband, Rasheed, is at first loving and attentive. When she loses one child after another, however, he becomes bitter and angry, and increasingly demanding and abusive.
Part Two begins with Laila, the young daughter of modern, forward-thinking Afghanis. Her father teaches at the local college, and oversees her education with great vigor.
“I know you’re still young, but I want you to understand and learn this now,” he said. “Marriage can wait, education cannot. You’re a very, very bright girl. Truly, you are. You can be anything you want, Laila. I know this about you. And I also know that when this war is over, Afghanistan is going to need you as much as its men, maybe even more. Because a society has no chance of success if its women are uneducated, Laila. No chance.”
Laila is allowed much more freedom than many of her peers, freedom that includes having a boy as her best friend. Tariq has only one leg, having been one of the many children maimed by hidden land mines during the Soviet Occupation. Despite his handicap, Tariq is a tough youngster, and not one to be pitied. At one point he removes his artificial leg and uses it as a weapon to deck another boy who has treated Laila badly.
As the children grow, we pick up a great deal of the recent history of Afghanistan: the retreat of the Soviets, as well as their serial replacements, who are elected or seize power in that war-torn country. Laila’s older brothers are martyred in the struggle. At first, the violence stays outside the capital city, but once the rockets begin to rain down on Kabul, many of its citizens decide to flee. When Tariq’s parents elect to leave and go to Pakistan, he asks Laila (by then 19) to marry him and go with them, but she feels she cannot leave her parents. They fall into each other’s arms, and for the first time, their passion carries them away.
Within days, her parents are killed by a direct hit, and Laila herself is badly injured.
In Part Three, Laila has been taken in by Rasheed and Mariam. Because of Rasheed’s abuse, Mariam has become a recluse, but she tends Laila lovingly. And then one day a man comes to the door looking for Laila. He tells her that he was taken ill during a trip to Peshawar, in Pakistan. In hospital, he was put into a bed beside a refugee who had been grievously wounded. The young man’s name was Tariq. The truck in which he was riding was hit by a rocket, near the border with Pakistan. Before he died, Tariq asked the man to find Laila when he returned to Kabul, and tell her what happened.
Laila is devastated. She is also pregnant from the one episode with Tariq. When Rasheed decides to take her as his second wife (without consulting Mariam), she accepts stoically. At least her baby will have a name.
The rest of Part Three details Rasheed’s growing distaste when the child he thinks is his turns out to be a daughter. His old, abusive ways now devolve onto both his wives. Mariam, who has long borne this burden alone, slowly becomes Laila’s friend. She also dotes on the little girl. Together, they manage to endure Rasheed’s cruelty. When Laila next has a child, it is a son, to Rasheed’s delight. The women must try to deal with his obvious favoritism for the boy.
I don’t think I can write about Part Four. I seem to have found myself writing a synopsis, not a review, because the characters in Hosseini’s book have done what all good characters in a novel do: enter the reader’s mind and heart and imagination, so that objective assessment of the book is difficult. Since I don’t want to spoil the book’s resolution for the new reader, I will stop at this point. Suffice it to say that despite the horrors of war and cruelty and oppression, this is ultimately a hopeful, enlightening book. You may not come to love the characters as unabashedly as I did, but I doubt you’ll be bored or disappointed in A Thousand Splendid Suns. It is no mere re-telling of history. It speaks deeply to the universal human spirit and the values of patience and loyalty and hope and honesty in the face of overwhelming odds.