A Thousand Splendid Suns
by Khaled Hosseini
Mariam is only fifteen when she is sent to Kabul to marry Rasheed. Nearly two decades later, a friendship grows between Mariam and a local teenager, Laila, as strong as the ties between mother and daughter. When the Taliban take over, life becomes a desperate struggle against starvation, brutality and fear. Yet love can move people to act in unexpected ways, and lead them to overcome the most daunting obstacles with startling heroism.
It’s difficult to review a book that so many people have already praised, but A Thousand Splendid Suns waited patiently on my TBR for so many years that I think it deserves me taking some time to sing its praises myself.
This novel, as Hosseini says himself, is for the women of Afghanistan, and whether he captured their struggles and their triumphs accurately is not something I can attest to. One of the only things I really have in common with Mariam and Laila, the two heroines of this novel, is that I’m also a woman, but beyond that my life has been very different to theirs, particularly Mariam’s. I’ve also never been to Afghanistan, but I’d really like to go – what I love about stories like this one, and the reason I want to read more stories like it, is that it allows its readers to take a peek into the Middle East beyond what we see in western media.
Starting out in the 1960s, A Thousand Splendid Suns spans almost half a century and follows Mariam, an illegitimate girl who’s married off to a much older man in Kabul, Rasheed, when she’s 15, and her eventual friendship with Laila, a woman almost 20 years her junior. This story is told against the backdrop of war and the Taliban’s rise to power, and I don’t think a novel has ever pulled at my heartstrings quite this much.
What I love about this novel, though, is that it’s not misery porn. Hosseini isn’t trying to make us miserable, in fact so much of the story focuses on these two women finding what happiness they can in the horrendous situation they, and the majority of Afghanistan, are in during this turbulent period of the country’s history. That being said Hosseini’s not afraid to show just how difficult life was when the Taliban took over, particularly for the women who weren’t allowed to go anywhere unchaperoned by a man and were forbidden from receiving an education. This novel reads like a love letter to the women of Afghanistan and their courage.
Despite its often harrowing descriptions – there is an instance of a C-section having to be performed with no anaesthetic and another instance of a mother collecting parts of her daughter’s body in her apron after a bomb strikes on her way home – I really enjoyed Hosseini’s writing style and found this novel so easy to read. He’s a true storyteller; whenever I put this book down I couldn’t wait to pick it up again to find out what was going to happen to Mariam and Laila and whether the two of them would be okay.
Their relationship is the heart of this novel, although it does take longer than I expected for the two of them to meet and become friends, but that narrative choices gives us a chance to get to know Mariam and Laila separately, too. Their age gap is a smart choice on Hosseini’s part because we’re able to see what Mariam expects from life at 15 and compare it to what Laila expects from life at 15, and it’s the understatement of the century to say that their expectations are very different. Once she’s married off Mariam tries devoting herself to being a good wife, to hopefully building the kind of loving family she’s never really had before, whereas Laila longs for education and equal footing with men and continues to long for it even when the Taliban take over. I loved them both.
Honestly there’s little I can say about this novel that hasn’t already been said, and personally I think it’s the kind of book you just need to read and sit with for a while. It’s often heartbreaking – if you find domestic violence difficult to read about, please be warned that there are several instances of it in here – but it’s so worth your time. Mariam and Laila, and the city of Kabul itself, are characters who will stay with me for a long time.