Friday, April 5, 2013

Contemporary Fiction: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Naturally, I would follow-up Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner with his second book, A Thousand Splendid Suns. Ultimately, I hope to read Hosseini's newest book, And the Mountains Echoed, which is scheduled to come out in May. If it is anything like his first two, it will definitely be worth checking out.

The Situation: A Thousand Splendid Suns is told from the point of view of two women living in Afghanistan, Mariam and Laila. Until the age of 15, Mariam lives with her bitter and extremely caustic mother. Why is mom so bitter? She had a brief affair with Mariam's father, in whose house she was a maid, and because of her pregnancy, she was cast out to the outskirts of town. Now, Mariam's father only visits once a week, but has nothing to do with either of them otherwise.

Many years later, Laila lives with her mother and father in the city. She is not the only child, but her brothers have gone off to help fight the war. Laila is a fortunate woman in that, under the communist regime that has taken control of the country, women are encouraged to go to school and educate themselves in order to obtain important jobs. The idea of Laila becoming an educated and accomplished woman excites her father, a former teacher. But her mother can only grieve over the absence of her sons and their participation in the continuing conflict.

The Problem: Eventually, both women find themselves married to a man for convenience, and the ever-growing conflict in their country affords them few options for escape. Eventually the Taliban takes control, leaving them with no freedom and no ability to follow their own dreams and live their own lives. Their violent and controlling spouse rules them and there is seemingly nothing they can do about it, unless they wish to invite more abuse upon themselves. After awhile it becomes apparent that all they have is each other, and even that may not be enough to save them.

Genre, Themes, History: Much like The Kite Runner, I have seen this book categorized as historical fiction as is takes place before Afghanistan's monarchy fell, and continues on until the Taliban take over. Islamic rituals and practices are mentioned, and while the tensions between Hazaras and Pashtuns played a major role in The Kite Runner, this novel focused more on the freedoms and restraints on women in the country as opposed to men. Marriage and motherhood are big themes, and it is interesting how the rules change with the different factions and governments that come in and take control. Sacrifice remains a big theme as well, but in this book, it isn't really used as a means to erase feelings of guilt over some past incident. This novel deals with the kind of sacrifice where there is absolutely nothing to gain in return. Also, while this book is told from Mariam and Laila's points of view, the narrator is actually third person limited, no matter whose story is being told at the time. This was interesting in that we know what the characters are thinking and feeling, but we don't necessarily get to hear their voices. And the title comes from an Afghani poem that Laila's father is fond of and recites for her.

My Verdict: I found this book to be much harder to get through than The Kite Runner, and it is possible that is because I am a woman reading a book told from the view point of two other women. I'm not saying that it isn't a good book or wasn't well-written or enjoyable, but I am saying there are tough scenes to get through. Hosseini conveys the feeling of hopelessness that these women find themselves in, and it isn't a pleasant feeling, even if you're far removed from it and just reading about it like I was. But once again, I didn't feel like the author was being brutal or harsh just for the sake of it or just for the shock value. Wile it was tough to endure, the brutality had a place in the story and seemed necessary to get a point across. Also, I feel like I have learned so much about Afghanistan and its history through this novel - even more so than I did with The Kite Runner.

Favorite Moment: When Laila's childhood best friend, Tariq, who only has one leg, defends her honor against a local bully, and as a result, the bully never messes with Laila again.

Favorite Character: After much debate with myself, I have finally decided to go with Aziza, as it is her presence that starts the bridging of a gap between Laila and Mariam.

Recommended Reading: Obviously, I am going to recommend Hosseini's first book, The Kite Runner. It is the book that put him on the map and, I would say, is slightly more compelling than this one. But they are both worth picking up.

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