A Thousand Splendid Suns is Khaled Hosseini’s sophomore novel. It also deals with life in his native Afghanistan, but this time from the viewpoint of two women shackled under the oppression of the Taliban’s tyrannical rule.
Two women – Mariam and Laila. Two stories of loss, oppression and disempowerment that intertwine in the height of the Taliban’s rule.
The story begins with Mariam, an outcast because of her illegitimate birth, who is disposed of in marriage to the much older Rasheed at a young age. Having spent her single life as a passive pawn, she is at a loss to defend herself against the onslaught of abuse and hostility from her new husband. She has no education, no family and no escape from her life of violence and cruelty.
Laila is the daughter of a schoolteacher, an educated and spirited girl who has grown up without facing the harsh realities that Miriam has. When the Taliban begin their rule, everything changes for her. She is suddenly alone in the world – unsure if anyone she knows or loves is still alive. The only shelter for her in a desperate situation is marriage to the bestial Rasheed, whether she likes it or not. In the new regime, a woman is invisible unless she belongs to a man.
As these two women live side by side, bearing each new abuse and trial, they form a friendship that is stronger than even the might of the men that seek to oppress them. As the situation in Afghanistan becomes more and more dire, they have only their friendship upon which to survive.
I remember reading A Thousand Splendid Suns as a teenager, sitting up in bed until the early hours as I read page after page. In a nutshell, I found this book magnificent. Firstly, I was very impressed by Hosseini’s characterisation of women. In general, men writing about female characters tend to caricature them to varying degrees. In A Thousand Splendid Suns, I felt that these women were real and their flaws were a product of their society rather than an attempt to pidgeonhole them into a certain ‘role’. The same is not true of their husband Rasheed, who seems to be the archetypal misogynistic, slightly insecure bully. However, he serves his purpose as the catalyst to bring together the two female characters.
Secondly, the author deals skilfully with a topic that is shocking and downright horrifying to people who have grown up in the West. I have read reviews that call this book ‘melodramatic’. The events that occur in the book are melodramatic but certainly not overly over-the-top. To me, it puts a face to the unimaginable and systematic cruelty that women in the Middle East face.
Thirdly, the book gives the outsider a look into Kabul pre-September 11. Before the U.S. occupation, the Taliban had a free reign over the city and imposed their own brand of fanatic justice upon the people, men and women alike. We see that despite the many restrictions and impositions, people find a way to survive and to find enjoyment wherever they can.
All in all, I found A Thousand Splendid Suns to be vastly entertaining. Khaled Hosseini is a talented storyteller, both due to his sensitive characterisation and his climactic plots. I wouldn’t recommend reading this book without a few tissues and a plate of cookies nearby. But otherwise, this is a great read!