Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Book Review: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

This historical fiction novel has been on my Goodreads 'To read' list for a while. I'm so glad that I finally got around to reading it. Once I started it, I finished it at breakneck speed!

The author of A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini, was born in Kabul, Afghanistan to a diplomat father and teacher mother. In 1980, shortly after the start of the Soviet–Afghan War, the family sought political asylum in the United States and took up residence in San Jose, California. Hosseini did not return to Afghanistan until 2003. 

The Afghan-American physician turned author followed his hugely popular debut novel (The Kite Runner, 2003) with a story highlighting the indomitable spirit of women living in war-torn Afghanistan. To date, all Hosseini's novels have been at least partially set in Afghanistan and has featured an Afghan as the protagonist. Hosseini is also a Goodwill Envoy to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Refugee Agency, and the founder of The Khaled Hosseini Foundation, a not-for-profit organization which provides humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan.

The title of 'A Thousand Splendid Suns' comes from an adaptation of a 17th-century poem 'Kabul' penned by Saib-e-Tabrizi which ironically spoke of the beauty and cultural triumphs of Afghanistan.

"One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs,
Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls." 

The year is 1964, the setting is rural Afghanistan. Five year old Mariam spends her childhood in an isolated kolba (a mud hovel) with her embittered mother on the outskirts of the city of Herat. She eagerly awaits the weekly visits from her father Jalil whom she adores. Mariam’s illegitimate status excludes her from leading a normal and relatively privileged life as a member of Jalil’s burgeoning family in Herat. As a teenager, she desperately seeks the acceptance she desires but a devastating incident sees her married off against her will to a much older shoemaker named Rasheed. Reeling from betrayal and rejection, Mariam initially finds solace in her new life in Kabul but as time passes, she descends into a pitiful existence, subject to the whims and fancies of her orthodox and increasingly volatile husband. Her inner turmoil is mirrored by that of her world outside as Afghanistan continues to be a chessboard of power politics.

Laila is a young girl born a generation later than Mariam. Born and raised in Kabul to liberal parents, Laila is no stranger to love, freedom, education and ambition. Her happy and carefree life is made better in the company of her beloved childhood friend Tariq. But after the withdrawal of the Soviet troops, violence between the rival warlord factions erupt and begin to devastate the life of ordinary Afghans. Rockets rain on Kabul reducing homes to rubble and people to scattered bits of flesh. Mariam’s life dramatically changes when an orphaned and grievously injured Laila comes to recuperate in her house. With no one else to turn to and nowhere else to go, Laila dispiritedly becomes a part of the dour family. 

Although initially at odds with each other, the two women gradually forge a bond of friendship and mutual respect. Laila’s children bring a previously unknown joy to Mariam’s life and she begins to assume the role of mother and protector. The two allies try to make the best of their wretched situation, muddling through life united against the relentless physical and emotional abuse that they are subjected to by Rasheed. But post-9/11 when the Taliban arrive, an unforeseen calamity occurs that threatens the very survival of the two women. 

The price of keeping the family together requires the ultimate sacrifice….

My thoughts....
A Thousand Splendid Suns is the spell-binding tale of two women, separated by generation but intertwined by destiny set in the turbulent years of Afghanistan’s history. The status of Afghan women in society during Soviet invasion, infighting and bloodshed, Taliban reign and post-9/11 American intervention, spanning more than three decades is vividly chronicled through the personal lives of the central protagonists, Mariam and Laila. Their disappointments, sorrows, longings and hopes are inextricably linked to the outbreak of factional war, anarchy, extremism and gender apartheid. The novel is complex, unexpected and gut-wrenching but the unlikely friendship that transcends even death wonderfully encapsulates the beauty of the human spirit. 

The novel is a reflection of the courage, endurance and resilience of women in the face of titanic oppression. It also attaches faces and names to the innocent victims caught in the crossfire of a decades-long bloody conflict that they did not initiate. This is a difficult novel to read because it feels like an exhausting emotional trek. You can expect to flinch while turning the pages as graphic images flash before your eyes bringing with it a sense of foreboding for the next misfortune to befall Mariam or Laila. The violation of what we consider to be fundamental human rights will shake you to your core. I felt the sadness and despair in the pit of my stomach and this feeling haunted me even days after I finished the novel. This may be a work of historical fiction but considering the events unfolding in Afghanistan right now, this is an important story to share with the world. For those of us watching Afghanistan as a conflict-ridden country through the stained sepia-tinted Western lens of news and films, this novel provides some much needed-perspective. 

The characters in the novel are complex and multidimensional. Mariam's character arc from a naïve child to a disillusioned teenager, a battered wife and finally an unsung hero is inspiring. She goes through unimaginable grief yet her resilience, quiet dignity and inner strength makes her the most admirable character in the novel. Laila is a character who is more easy to identify with - beautiful, smart and confident. Her headstrong nature and tendency to challenge authority represents the more modern face of Afghanistan. Bound by stifling limitations and having to make tremendous sacrifices, she still manages to retain her feisty personality till the end. While reading the novel, I felt that the switching of perspectives from Mariam to Laila's was a bit sudden and bumpy but the author eventually succeeded in striking a balance between them and making the emotional reality of the two women's entwined lives palpable to the reader. As far as the men are concerned, I liked how the author showcased polarizing ideologies and personalities. You have the self-centered and cowardly Jalil who cruelly spurned his daughter only to repent much later in life. There is Rasheed who is unapologetically misogynistic, manipulative and malevolent. His backstory does shed light on some of his actions, although not to the extent of justifying them. Only when presented with a son do his dormant redeeming qualities make an appearance. On the other side, there is Mullah Faizullah, the only positive male role model in Mariam's childhood. He teaches her about religion, encourages her education and offers the compassion and comfort she craves. Then there is the sensitive Hakim and nurturing Tariq whose innate love, respect and support for the women in their lives defy stereotypes. 

I was amazed as to how well Khaled Hosseini writes from a woman’s point of view. As a South Asian woman, I am acquainted with the patriarchal values and social norms that keep gender inequalities alive. Although not sharing the same social, religious or economic background as the protagonists in the story and fortunately, not having personally experienced much gender-based discrimination in my life, the novel still spoke to me in a profound way. I was struck by how much I take for granted and humbled by how privileged my life is in comparison. 

Through the descriptions of the natural beauty of the landscapes, colorful cultural heritage and glimpses of everyday life in Afghanistan, the author humanizes the country that is often only associated with war, terrorism and atrocities of the Taliban. He gives us a peek into the soul behind the inscrutable veil and establishes a heartfelt connection to the women donning them who have needs, desires and hope just like everyone else. 

It is quite obvious that Hosseini loves his native homeland and is heartbroken by the tragedy of the situation there. He manages to give the reader an unbiased account of the brutal history of the country, addresses the pressing societal issues and lends a voice to those who largely go unheard. As grim as most parts of the novel are, it ends on a positive and uplifting note. 

“A man's heart is a wretched, wretched thing. It isn't like a mother's womb. It won't bleed. It won't stretch to make room for you.”

“Learn this now and learn it well. Like a compass facing north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always.”

“A woman who will be like a rock in a riverbed, enduring without complaint, her grace not sullied but shaped by the turbulence that washes over her.”

Khaled Hosseini
A Thousand Splendid Suns 

The powerful storyline, lyrical prose, evocative descriptions, nuanced characterization and tantalizing foreshadowing, make this an utterly riveting read. 

Highly recommended! 

My rating for this book is


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