Author: Khaled Hosseini
Published: 2007 (this edition 2008)
ISBN: 978 0 7475 8589 3 40
Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns tells of the bond between Mariam and Laila, two women living in Kabul, Afghanistan during the Taliban occupation.
Mariam, the older woman of the two, is fifteen when her father arranges a marriage between her and Rasheed, a much older man. Several years later, Rasheed takes the desperate Laila as a second wife after her parents are killed during the conflict in Kabul and she is told Tariq, her young boyfriend, was killed trying to flee the city. As both women suffer at the hands of their abusive husband, an incredible friendship develops between them as they attempt to escape the marriage.
Having already read, and adored, Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, I approached this one expecting it to be good, but didn’t see how it could possibly top his previous book. I’ll end the suspense now and say it: I was wrong! This book truly was even better, probably because it featured some amazing characters who managed to be even more inspiring than those in the author’s previous work.
I adored both Mariam and Laila, and the fact they were depicted as strong, intelligent women in the midst of an environment where women’s rights are incredibly limited. Both are survivors, having endured loss at an early age and married Rasheed in hope of staying afloat, and are, ultimately, very much united in the hatred they feel towards him. Readers will delight in seeing the Mother-Daughter like dynamic that develops between them, and share in the anguish they feel when various escape plans are foiled. I won’t give too much away about their eventual fate, but I will say that some readers may be disappointed that the novel’s ending was not more harmonious. Yet, personally, I loved the ending, as I felt it brought closure to their story, and asked some very thought-provoking questions about how far one would go to save a loved one.
As for Rasheed, Hosseini really has managed to create a character featuring every trait of the stereotypical ‘unpleasant husband’. Aside from abusing his wives both physically and emotionally, he is lazy, unkind to his daughter and harbours incredibly chauvinistic views on women. One has to wonder, however, whether Hosseini uses the character as a political point, suggesting this is what happens when someone lives under a regime, such as the one favoured by the Taliban, that tells them women are fundamentally inferior to males, and that to marry a woman is to have her as a possession. Rather than being fundamentally evil, Rasheed may be a product of the environment he inhabits. Either way, I can safely say that he more than deserved his eventual fate.
Yet, it would be wrong to suggest that Rasheed is the only, or even the main, villain in Splendid Suns. That particular accolade must go to the Taliban, given it is their regime that has torn Afghanistan apart, and their views that have oppressed the women of Kabul, once known for its forward-thinking attitudes to gender equality. When his characters attempt to flee to Pakistan, Hosseini is able to convey the pain one must feel at having to leave one’s home country, having already seen said country scarred by war. The conflict and suffering depicted mean this is often far from the easiest of reads, but if you’re someone who likes books that tell the reader about real life politics, then you’ll love the way Hosseini starts his narrative back in the 1970s, when Mariam is a young girl, allowing him to document how the Taliban slowly infiltrated Afghani society, as well as how Mariam feels when she is first sent to live with Rasheed.
By the end of this novel I had realised that I had previously known very little about the political situation in Afghanistan, including how the Taliban came to power and how this subsequently affected women. As one would expect from a novel describing such tragedy, this one is very moving, and the realistic characters only add to this, as we reflect on the fact their situation could be reality for some Afghani women. This is definitely an example of fiction being used to educate its audience on some important issues, mainly the fact that women in many countries are trapped in abusive marriages they cannot legally leave; however Splendid Suns is far from a negative book. In fact, it’s one that both empowers and inspires women, showing that there is hope for the future of Afghanistan, and that intelligent women like Laila can pave the way for a society that is more accepting of career women. Overall, this is simply a beautiful story of the perseverance of two women, who have found themselves in a situation that is far too common under Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, and a truly moving account of the things we will do for love. That being said, I’d urge readers to remember that this is a novel with a political message, and that the saddest thing about the book is that women really do live like Laila and Mariam. To remember this is to understand why the world needs a novel like this one (definitely one of the best I have ever read).