A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini tells the story of two Afghan women whose lives are molded and refracted in the tumult of events in recent Afghan history — the Soviet invasion beginning in 1979, the Civil War, the reign of the Taliban, and the beginnings of the Karzai administration.
It’s a powerful, moving, tragic and heart-wrenching story, but one that’s also infused with love, empathy and hard-won compassion. And while it brings in and envelops complicated subjects like women’s rights, Shari’a law, and the bond between mothers and their children, at the heart of it is a story of the friendship between and struggles of two women in the midst of obstacles, loss and war.
Mariam is a harami — the illegitimate child of a well-respected businessman in Herat. She is raised by her disgraced mother in a village at the outskirts of the city. When her mother kills herself, she’s briefly and reluctantly taken in by her father, but Mariam is then quickly married off to a much older man in Kabul, where much of the story takes place. Later, we meet Laila, who is a younger, precocious, well-educated girl in Kabul. Laila and Mariam come into each other’s lives when, in the midst of the Civil War, Laila’s house is bombed, resulting in her parents’ deaths.
In the novel, the modern tendencies of Kabul, where women are educated and work in professions and have government posts, clash against the tradition and rigidity of older customs and Islamic fundamentalism; the political leanings of various ethnics groups in Afghanistan – the Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, etc. – are seen chafing against one another; but most of all, the novel depicts people struggling to get by — it’s about compassion, humility and empathy, and it describes people finding a way forward and changing because of it.
The book is, quite frankly, very good. It paints a sweeping yet refined tale, with uncomplicated and elegant narration. Hosseini is a very good storyteller, but even more than that, he someone who tells his story with the simple confidence of someone who has a clear vision of a story that he wants to tell.
I really enjoyed this book, even if it made me cry about a dozen times. The Afghanistan Hosseini describes is factually the same as the one you can read about in the news, but it comes from such a nuanced and very human perspective that it seems almost unrecognizable. Hosseini’s Afghanistan is engaging and real and relatable, sometimes delightful, sometimes tragic. I highly, highly recommend giving this a read.