Short aside: I find it comical how much people rebuke spoilers and the great lengths they go to avoid them. I hardly ever watch a movie, start a new book or TV series without gorging on plot summaries, spoiler-filled recaps, reviews and the like. They pique my interest and prepare me to digest whatever it is I’m about to consume.
With that being said, please note that there are ‘spoilers’ ahead.
“Learn this now and learn it well, my daughter: Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam”
– Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns
A Thousand Splendid Suns is a novel set in Afghanistan. It revolves around the lives of two Afghan women, Mariam and Laila. It tells of the circumstances that forced them into marriage to the same violent man, their struggle to survive the chaos of the Afghan Civil War and the brutality of the Taliban rule.
In the beginning, the story seems to be focused on Mariam, a harami — bastard (the illegitimate child of a wealthy businessman and his housekeeper, Nana); her formative years with an emotionally abusive mother, the father she adored and grew to loathe, and the loss of her mother that catalysed her marriage to a dreadful and abusive man.
While the first part of Mariam’s story unfolds, there are faint glimpses into Laila’s (the other central character) world. A lot of it does serve as a prelude to how their lives will mesh, and it is only when she is introduced as a main character that the reader is able to tie it all together.
Mariam and Laila are almost two decades apart with Mariam being older. When Mariam’s mother commits suicide after she defies her by going to Herat to see her father, Jalil, she moves into her father’s house. After a week in his home, Jalil’s wives conspire to marry her off to a shoemaker in Kabul (the capital of Afghanistan). Jalil, weak-willed and filled with shame over siring a harami acquiesces and has her married to Rasheed.
Laila, the only daughter of a teacher and his wife in Kabul, loses her parents to a rocket bombing that she barely survives. She is unexpectedly saved by Rasheed and he takes her into his home to recuperate, but not without an ulterior motive. With no family, no place to go and pregnant with the child of her best friend and lover, she is coerced into marriage to Rasheed for survival and the sake of her unborn child.
Up until I read A Thousand Splendid Suns, I simple-mindedly, and ignorantly I might add, thought of Afghanistan as just an Islamist-extremist and war-torn place. Reading the book showed me just what good of it I’d yet to see like its rich cultural heritage and history. A good example: the two Buddhas of Bamyan that were carved into the side of a cliff and stand at 115 and 174 ft (I ran to Google this after reading about it and it’s simply breathtaking).
I often say that if you want to experience a place and can’t visit it physically, then your next best option is to read literature about it. Complementing the cultural and historical backdrop is a portrait of the socio-economic and political conditions in Afghanistan — especially as it concerned the women— during the Afghan Civil War and the gruesome & deplorable Taliban regime.
If it isn’t already glaring, the strongest theme in this novel is female suffering, endurance and survival. It breaks the women, binds them and grows them. While the fabric of this story is ultimately woven with two threads that are the lives of Mariam and Laila, there are links and similarities to fringe characters that reinforce the motif of female suffering, endurance and survival. It is written with such care that at no point does it glorify the suffering of the women, but it uses it to tell a larger story of the systematic oppression of women.
ATSS notably explores the human motivations to do good and bad, as well as the different human responses to pain and struggle: a mother crippled by sad events, and her ostensibly rotten luck in life that she finds it difficult to care for her child emotionally; a man ruled by propriety and pressured to neglect a child he loves dearly; a woman willingly giving her life so that another might have another chance at it.
This is such a powerful story — easy to read but not at the expense of literary form, lyrical and factual. ATSS gifts an immersive experience; opening a door that leads the reader to feel all that needs to be felt — horror, anger, sadness, hope. A particularly poignant scene is one where a mother whose child was torn to shreds by a rocket spends days walking up and down the street where it happened, frantically searching for and picking up the remains of her child. This gave me chills.
Khaled Hosseini wrote an exceptional, heartrending and potent book that examines the complexity of human behaviour through real and affecting characters. It made its way into my heart as well as my list of favourite books.
Peace and much love to you,
Ps. Featured images were taken by the writer