Born a generation apart and with very different ideas about love and family, Mariam and Laila are forced to live together. At first Mariam feels suspicious and jealous towards Laila, but as they endure ever escalating dangers around them – in their home as well as in the streets of Kabul – they come to form a bond that makes them both sisters and mother-daughter to each other, and that will ultimately alter the course not just of their own lives but of the next generation.
Khaled Hosseini is one of those authors that almost every literary fiction reader is familiar with and you’re almost supposed to feel ashamed when you haven’t read his work, so I always planned to pick up A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Kite Runner at some point, but I knew it would be a long term goal.
That was before I got into audiobooks. This book was one of the very few unabridged – seriously, why would anyone want an abridged version? – stories they had at my local library, so I wasn’t left with much choice. I wasn’t particularly excited as I expected it to be too literary and ambitious for my taste.
Not only did I go into A Thousand Splendid Suns with low expectations, the conditions in which I listened to it were far from ideal. I reserve audiobooks strictly for whenever I’m driving the car. While it’s great entertainment during a rather boring activity, it does require focus on two things at once: the road and the book. Easy enough with a light read, but less so with a more complex story.
Moreover, I was given a damaged copy that faltered on a number of occasions and eventually skipped parts of the book.
Despite this setback, I loved it. A Thousand Splendid Suns is not the dense novel I feared it would be. On the contrary, it turned out to be an incredibly fast-paced and moving story with a strong plot. Having said that, I would argue that the novel is mostly character-driven. The greatness of this book is, in my opinion, almost entirely the achievement of Hosseini’s female protagonists.
Mariam, naive and eager to please, is brought up as a harami – a bastard – in a small village with very little resources, while Laila enjoys a good education and a generally nice life in Afghanistan’s capital. When fate brings them together, the rebellious Laila sets them on a dangerous journey in pursuit of a better life, armoured only with hope, courage and one another.
Against the backdrop of a Kabul tormented by war, Khaled Hosseini paints a sadly realistic picture of Afghan history. I had hoped to get some insight in the motivation for conservative Muslim traditions, but I must confess I ended up infuriated by the way women were treated as second-class citizens in nineties Kabul. I can only hope that Afghanistan made substantial progress in the 21st century.
I’ve always had a troubled relationship with the position of women (and by extension the relevance of hijabs and burkas) in Islamic countries, and Khaled Hosseini – though probably a Muslim himself – did nothing to warm me up to the idea of women deliberately put in the shadow of their husband.
This is probably, because this extremely conservative way of thinking, as portrayed by Rasheed, does not determine the Islam or being a Muslim. In the end, it all comes down to which kind of man you want to be; Rasheed, Jalil or Tariq?
The only criticism I can think of, is that one could argue that there are too many unfortunate coincidences in this depressing rollercoaster. I mean, how much bad luck can you get? However, I can’t say it bothered me. I love books that rip my heart out and smash it to pieces.
A Thousand Splendid Suns is a novel that will stick with me long after I’ve read – or rather: listened to – it. It’s been a real privilege spending time with Mariam and Laila. I can’t wait to pick it up again. The physical copy this time, for I can’t shake off the feeling that I’ve missed out on some of the beauty. It’s too soon to know for sure, but I think that in time this book will have its place on my all-time favourite books list.
What did you make of A Thousand Splendid Suns? Would you prefer it over The Kite Runner?
Have a bookish day!
Buy this book at The Book Depository.