I understand why the book sold over a million copies: it gave an inside glimpse into a culture that is often misunderstood and hidden from the media, a look into the women of Afghanistan.
In A Thousand Splendid Suns, the reader gets the chance to see what’s under the burqa and how some women are treated by their husbands. In many cases, they suffer abuse and are treated as servants and animals rather than smart, passionate, and caring women.
Additionally, it was the long-awaited second book by Afghan-American Khaled Hosseini, author of the The Kite Runner. In much the same way the kite runner is a father-son story spanning a long time period, A Thousand Splendid Suns is a mother-daughter story which covered the two wives of Rasheed, a supporter of the Taliban.
A Closer Look at the Women
The first part of the book focuses on the first wife, Mariam, an illegitimate child who was forced into an arranged marriage when she was 17.
When she could not carry a son full term, Rasheed became more and more displeased with her “shortcomings” and expressed this displeasure through physical and emotional abuse – making her chew rocks until her teeth broke.
The second part of the book focuses on Laila, a woman pregnant out of wedlock.
Rasheed had tricked her into marrying him, so she became his second wife, almost an entire generation younger than Mariam. Like Mariam, Laila is abused for not bearing a son for several years (her first child was a daughter).
The remainder of the book describes Laila’s and Mariam’s slow but sure friendship and how they supported each other during the taliban’s rise to power, drought, and Rasheed’s loss of income and poor living conditions.
Such a story should be an incredible read – it offers plenty of insight into a realm completely foreign to me. The events in the book are horrifying but accurate. And, it is obvious the author speaks from what he experienced while visiting Afghanistan.
However, I also feel the book stretched beyond its reach.
It Covers a Lot of History
The story encompasses such a long time period that it doesn’t have the chance to fully explore the characters, to give them the chance to develop. We see what happens to these women, and we see how it changes them, but it feels like it’s from a distance rather than from their true perspective.
Scenes that should have been emotionally traumatizing and heartbreaking feel a bit muted. We see their physical responses, but their emotional responses were often glossed over in order to cover the next horrifying event.
The book also jumps years at a time, which enables the author to give an accurate portrayal of the history going on during that time. However, I would have liked to see more of the main characters and their feelings and less of the changes in the government.
Though fascinating, the history seemed a bit shoe-horned into the story.
Is It a Good Story?
The two women were thrown together, and while one first despised the other, they eventually moved toward planning their escape together and becoming close friends. While I don’t want to spoil the ending completely, the book ends on such a positive note that it feels like a cheap backdoor rather than acknowledging that some women in the same circumstances don’t experience a happy ending.
The book had a soap-opera feel to it.
Still, it wasn’t a bad book – I think it’s worth reading if you want to widen your perspective and experience another culture. But, I also think the author doesn’t fully deserve Lisa See’s praise, “he understands the power of emotion as few other popular writers do,” as said in her New York Times book review. I would have loved to see more emotion and less matter-of-fact history.
 See, Lisa (June 3, 2007). “Mariam and Laila”. The New York Times. Retrieved July 2, 2013. Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/03/books/review/See-t.html?ref=khaledhosseini&_r=1&
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