I liked Mr. Hosseini’s first novel, The Kite Runner (Semicolon review here), very much. So did a lot of other people. It became a best seller, and it’s been made into a movie. A Thousand Splendid Suns is just as compelling and as ripped-from-the-headlines relevant as The Kite Runner. In fact, I liked it in some ways more because it was about the women of Afghanstan, a story which epitomizes the bravery, resilience, and long-suffering of the Afghan people even more than a story about men and boys like The Kite Runner. The men of Afghanistan have suffered, certainly, but they also have been the cause of much of the suffering that has torn Afghanistan to pieces in the past, and they have had the option of fighting back and defending themselves in many instances. The women mostly endured and struggled to survive and continue to do so.
A Thousand Splendid Suns is about two of those women who survived, Mariam and Laila. Mariam is a country girl, a harami (illegitimate child), educated only in her knowledge of the Koran, and married to a man, Rasheed, who wants her only for the sons that she is unable to give him. Laila, twenty years younger than Mariam, is the youngest child of a schoolteacher father and a derelict mother, but Laila has the education and the romance that Mariam has been denied. Laila’s friend Tariq is the love of her life, her best friend. When all of these characters must endure war, Soviet occupation, the chaotic rule of the mujahideen, and finally the Taliban, they are tested almost beyond endurance.
This book is about endurance, about what it takes to survive in a war-torn country like Afghanistan and about how one might be able to endure and live through a horribly abusive marriage and family life. Just as Mariam has very few choices in her life about whom she will marry, about where she will go or how she will live, the people of Afghanistan found themselves with fewer and fewer choices about their lives and how they would live them. And after all the war is over and the Taliban is removed from power, even then, the book tells us, “Laila is happy here in Murree. But it is not an easy happiness. It is not a happiness without cost.”
The message I derived from the novel is that hope is elusive, but necessary, and love can be redemptive, but sometimes at a great cost. Even though all the characters in the book are Muslim, I found the book to have a “Christian” theme, as one of the characters, Mariam, gives her life to save the others and give them a hope and a future.
Isaiah prophesied of Jesus:
“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.
He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.
And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.”
This description fits the character of Mariam in the book, as she acts as a Christ figure. However, the Islamic worldview in the book also comes through. In the Koran, Allah is All-Merciful, but also inscrutable, and it is impossible to know whether He will choose to be merciful to any particular sinner or not. A Muslim can only hope for Allah’s mercy with no assurance of forgiveness. Mariam’s judge at her trial says: “Something tells me you are not a wicked woman, hamshira. But you have done a wicked thing. And you must pay for this thing you have done. Shari’a in not vague on this matter. It says I must send you where I will soon join you myself.”
This “justice” is Islamic law and theology in practice. Mariam has done nothing wrong, but she is made to pay for her trangression of Islamic law anyway. And she is not promised forgiveness, but only told, “May Allah forgive you.”
A Thousand Splendid Suns offers insight into Islamic culture, Afghan history, the subjugation and courage of women, and the possibility and the cost of redemption. I think it’s well worth a read.
Khaled Hosseini lists some of his “most important books” for Newsweek magazine. Interestingly enough, two of the books on Hosseini’s list are The Bible and The Koran.
Khaled Hosseini’s blog post for January 10, 2008: “My first novel, The Kite Runner, was dominated by men and I knew, even as I was finishing it, that I was going to write about Afghanistan again and that this time I would write about Afghan women. The struggle of Afghan women was simply too compelling, too tragic, and too important and relevant a story, and both as an Afghan and as a writer, I knew that I couldn’t resist writing about it.”
Other bloggers’ reviews, mixed:
Krakovianka: “When I reached the halfway mark, I finally had to confess myself disappointed. There was potential and promise in the story, but I felt the writing was not at all compelling, and the story was positively mediocre.”
Wendy at Caribousmom: “Hosseini’s novel is a must read – if only to remind us of the suffering of women in other countries, and the outrages of war. Beautifully written, fiercely powerful, and with a message about the redeeming quality of love and hope, A Thousand Splendid Suns is highly recommended.”
Laura’s Musings: “The story takes place against the backdrop of unrest, war, and terror that characterized Afghanistan from the early 1970s to the early 2000s. Hosseini paints a vivid picture of events; every single character experienced death and loss.”
Jennifer at Random Musings: “It’s a book of sadness, mostly. I know it’s supposed to leave the reader with a feeling of hope and of “moving on”, but for me it wasn’t enough hope to extinguish the grief it poured out earlier in the book.”