Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Book Review: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

A Thousand Splendid Suns
By Khaled Hosseini

Reviewed by Tom Carrico

(Blogger Note:  This review was published several years ago in "LamLight" the monthly newsletter of the Lynchburg Academy of Medicine.)

        It’s amazing that this author has the #1 fiction paperback (The Kite Runner) and the #1 fiction hardback (A Thousand Splendid Suns) on “The New York Times” bestseller list.  The Kite Runner has sold over four millions copies since its release in 2003.  It is a hauntingly written novel set in war-torn Afghanistan.  It is exceptionally well plotted and opens the window on a part of the world that very few of us are familiar with.  The two boys in The Kite Runner are from different socio-economic circumstance but forge a friendship which transcends politics, war and economics.  Even though this story is set in Afghanistan, it is a story of childhood betrayal and its consequences and could really have been set anywhere.  It is a great story wonderfully told, however, and the fact that it takes place in a land few of us understand makes it educational as well as entertaining.

       To use a baseball metaphor, if The Kite Runner was a home run, A Thousand Splendid Suns, the author’s second effort, is a game winning walk-off grand slam.  The author has managed to tell the modern history of Afghanistan: from the end of the monarchy to the invasion of the Soviets to the chaos of rule by the war lords to the tight fisted maniacal rule of the Taliban to the post-9/11 return to some semblance of relative normalcy.  The author again uses the device of telling the stories of two main characters of differing backgrounds, this time women.  The first, Mariam, is the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy businessman in Herat.  The book opens with the story of Mariam’s childhood.  She is sequestered on the outskirts of the city in a clay hut with her mother.  Her father visits once weekly and servants from his house bring basic supplies.  Mariam’s mother is understandably bitter and the tension between mother and daughter is palpable.  Eventually Mariam is given in marriage to Rasheed, an older shoe-maker from Kabul, mainly to remove the embarrassment of her very existence from her father’s world.  This man is domineering and abusive and Mariam’s inability to conceive causes her to quickly fall out of favor.

       The second main character is Laila, a beautiful young girl who grows up as a neighbor of Rasheed and Mariam in Kabul.  She has a childhood friend, Tariq, a young man who lost a leg to a Soviet land mine.  As these children mature, they fall in love. Tariq’s family decides to run from the warlords who by now bombarding the city.  During the hysteria of their pending separation, the two young lovers conceive a child.  Once Laila realizes she is pregnant and has no idea how to contact Tariq, she also marries Rasheed and convinces him that the child is his.  Needless to say, the relationship between Laila and the forlorn Mariam starts out poorly and gets worse.  Eventually they are brought together by their shared victim status and their mutual disgust and hatred for Rasheed.  The resolution of the conflict between these two women is riveting and, well, painful.  You get the impression that there aren’t too many happy endings in Afghanistan.

       While the author tells these two women’s stories, he also gives the reader a fantastic and comprehensive history lesson.  The modern history of Afghanistan is complicated and the author uses some of the secondary characters to deliver this lesson.  Laila’s father is a school teacher and is very interested in politics and a lot of his dialogue is opinion about the current state of affairs.  Laila’s two older brothers fight for one of the warlords against the Communists and are both killed.  Rasheed is a businessman who tries to manipulate whatever political system is in charge at the moment, which also gives insight into the political and social climate through all of these regime changes.

       This is not an easy book to read.  Over and over again, it is heart breaking.  The cruelty to women is incomprehensible.  The status of medical care during the rule of the Taliban is clinically detailed by the author (who is a physician) and graphically described when Laila presents to the only hospital in Kabul which is allowed to treat women and has to undergo a Caesarean section without anesthesia because the Taliban won’t fund the women’s hospital. 

       Khaled Hosseini has a writing style reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway.  He writes in short, brutal sentences which conjure images that the mind can’t even comprehend.  He always uses the perfect word or phrase.  He alludes to Hemingway in one section when Laila’s father is reading The Old Man and the Sea.  A Thousand Splendid Suns is also a fight against impossible odds, a story of hope when the situation is hopeless, and the resilience of the human spirit.

       I think that this book is destined to be a classic.  It is critically important for every American who has an opinion about war, freedom and human rights to read this book.  It’s easy to forget the citizens of a country as it is repeatedly trampled over the decades.  This book puts very real faces on people caught in the crossfire of a conflict they did not initiate.  It describes conditions and situations which those of us living in the comfort of 21st century America cannot comprehend.  This book is at once entertaining and horrifying, edifying and humbling, compulsively readable and appallingly shocking.  It is terrific.


No comments:

Post a Comment