Synopsis: Born a generation apart and with very different ideas about love and family, Mariam and Laila are two women brought jarringly together by war, by loss and by fate. As they endure the ever escalating dangers around them—in their home as well as in the streets of Kabul—they come to form a bond that makes them both sisters and mother-daughter to each other, and that will ultimately alter the course not just of their own lives but of the next generation.
This was my first encounter with Khaled Hosseini. Yes, despite this being his second book.
Regardless, it was a very memorable one.
I had heard of Hosseini before, and even though I was aware of the praise being sung for The Kite Runner, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for this book, and Hosseini’s poignant and immersive writing.
A Thousand Splendid Suns is never described as an educational book, but it taught me so much.
When I picked it up the first time, I scoffed and thought to myself “I know about Afghanistan and what’s going on there!” But reading a few newspaper articles and hearing about the Taliban on the news wasn’t actually enough for me to make that claim. Hosseini proved my arrogance wrong, and proceeded to actually tell me what had been going on in the country we all know the name of, but not its story. The novel takes you through thirty years of the country’s modern history, from the end of monarchy to the rule of the Taliban. Because the story is told from the point of view of two women, who initially have nothing else in common besides being neighbours, we learn about Afghanistan through the characters, a much more meaningful experience. Hosseini truly manages to show the horrible effect of war on ordinary people’s lives this way – one of the reasons this book is so heart-breaking is because you get to feel the fear and confusion of the people whose backyards are being bombed. Secondary characters also take centre stage when it comes to teaching the reader vital history lessons. Laila’s father, a school teacher and huge bookworm, offers a lot of insight into the country’s current state of affairs, as his interest in politics seeps through almost everything he says. Laila’s two older brothers are actively involved in the fighting that takes place for most of the book. Even Rasheed, Mariam and Laila’s horrible husband, offers vital information regarding the social and political climate through the various regime changes, which would have been more confusing were it not for his indirect explanations.
The characters in this book are all amazing.
I adore Mariam and Laila, they are such strong women, yet so human and relatable. They experience a lot of complex emotions and are really well-developed. Laila’s father is an adorable sweetheart whom I felt very protective towards. Tariq, the boy Laila falls in love with, is a bad boy with a soft heart that even I fell for. Rasheed is THE villain, violent and mean to his wives, only showing compassion for his son (and not for his daughter), and it is impossible not to hate him. The difference between the men portrayed in the novel is a significant one. It points out that there is no one type of man in a society, something which is not only valid just Mariam and Laila’s world, but also to ours.
More than the characters though, I love the interactions and relationships between them. My favourite is the friendship-turned-into-romance between Laila and Tariq. It’s just so pure and honest. And there are a few very heart warming, and some equally heart-breaking, moments between the two. I also love the friendship between Mariam and Laila – yes, even the rocky start. There are people who comment that Mariam’s initial jealousy and anger at Laila (after she marries Rasheed) is unjustified. But when trying to win Laila over, Rasheed was kind to her, something which Mariam never got to experience. Mariam had also been the woman of the house longer – despite the suffering she experiences at the hands of her husband, I can understand why suddenly having to share everything with a stranger would make you upset. I also really love Laila’s children, especially the way they interact with Tariq.
It’s a really tough book, though – very far from an easy read.
The hardship Mariam and Laila endure is not easy to get over, even after closing the book. Mariam has a tough life from the beginning. She is the illegitimate child of a wealthy business man, and lives with her mother in an isolated place outside Herat (the city where the majority of the plot takes place). The relationship between her and her mother is strained, her only joy being the visits from her father. However, he isn’t the brilliant man she has made him to be, and later, he never welcomes her into his home or his family, marrying her off to Rasheed to keep her away. If this isn’t painful enough, the suffering she must endure as Rasheed’s wife is unbearable, yet becomes something of the ordinary for Mariam. By contrast, Laila has a much better upbringing, going to school and making friends, as well as having a proper house to live in. Despite all this, she also ends up married to Rasheed, enduring the same suffering as Mariam. It’s a really tough lesson about hardship. It can strike and any time, regardless of upbringing or social situation.
But the real lesson is about friendship and love, and how these can persevere against any obstacle and challenge. Female friendship in this book is the purest form of joy and hope. It made me cry happy tears. And love…this is no fairy tale, but it portrays love in the same way. Despite the war, the poverty and the hardship this book keeps telling us about, it is also overwhelmingly positive in its message.
A Thousand Suns was life changing, and I do not say that lightly. It taught me about Afghanistan, and made me realise how much I take for granted every day. It taught me about hardship, abuse and loss. It taught me about strength. It showed me there is beauty among the rubble, love among the hate, and above all, there is always hope.
It made me cry on the bus. People shot me strange looks, and the elderly lady next to me gave me a tissue. I don’t cry on buses. But that’s the kind of boo this is – it will make you cry in public.