I am way behind on my review for this book, so unfortunately my memories of it aren't as clear as I would like them to be. Thankfully, the book made such an impact on me that I have yet to forget how powerful a read it was, how moving and beautiful a story it told.
Khaled Hosseini is perhaps better known for his breakout novel, The Kite Runner. It's the story of two boys living and growing up in war-torn Afghanistan, their friendship torn apart by the fact that each is from a different religious faction. With the Kite Runner, I finally understood the complexity and the magnitude of everything that had, and was still happening in that far-off country I had only heard about in the news. I think that (and this might be true for most Westerners) we have become almost numb to the constant reports of so many dead and so many attacks coming from Afghanistan, so that we almost come to forget that there are human lives being torn apart, friendships and families destroyed in a senseless struggle for power. Hosseini, with his simple yet touching prose, brought it all home in his first novel; though the story was fiction and the book had some flaws, he gave us a penetrating, honest look into Afghanistan, probably the first for many readers.
In A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini does the same, but in a much more powerful way. This time, he focuses on the group that is perhaps the most affected by the wars in which they have little or no say at all: the women of Afghanistan. Hosseini, his style much more mature and elegant than in the Kite Runner, tells the story of two very different women: Mariam and Laila. The first part of the book focuses on Mariam, an illegitimate girl raised by a bitter, sad mother. Mariam is visited every now and then by her father, Jalil, a wealthy man whom she adores. She is a happy child until she discovers that her father and his family are ashamed of her, when she isn't allowed into his house after he breaks a promise to take her somewhere. She is heartbroken, and remains a sad and tragic figure as she is later forcefully married to a much older man. Mariam, a poor, uneducated girl, accepts her life as the isolated wife of an abusive, religiously conservative man, because she knows nothing better. Or rather, she believes she deserves nothing better. All she knows is that she must live the life she has been given, and that to fight it would be useless.
Hosseini leaves Mariam for a while to tell us of Laila a young girl, who lives down the street from the reclusive Mariam and her husband. Unlike the older woman, Laila has a loving family and a progressive father who believes women have the right to be educated and to work. Laila falls in love with a young man named Tariq, but just before they can be together, Afghanistan is thrown into a cycle of civil wars and invasions that would sink it into a constantly changing, constantly dangerous world in which death is always just around the corner. I won't spoil the how, but I'll just say that eventually Laila's and Miriam's lives are brought together.
It's here that Hosseini connects their two stories, and the women's relationship, tense at first, is the most honest and touching part of the entire book, and I admit it brought tears to my eyes. Laila finally allows Mariam to see that there is more to the world than suffering and sadness, resignation and numbness. The love that grows between them, like a mother and daughter, is beautifully written by Hosseini, their lives being affected but not much changed by the constant warfare in Afghanistan. As women during the reign of the Taliban, they are not allowed to know or to see anything, but Hosseini constantly connects their lives to what is going on in the larger world. They are in many ways helpless, but they learn to survive by their strength and love alone.
I think this last is why I found this book to be much more real and powerful than The Kite Runner. It's so rare to hear of war from the point of view of women, let alone Afghanistan, and even more rare to see it done so well as Hosseini does. The two women are so carefully drawn that you come to understand them completely, and there is never a moment when they seem unrealistic; they feel real, and their story has the most impact because of it. It's never manipulative or cloying: it's honest.
A Thousand Splendid Suns is a story full of sadness and tragedy, but there are moments of true beauty and happiness in the lives of Mariam and Laila, and these are just as heart-wrenching and powerful. I absolutely loved reading this book, even when it had me sobbing into my shirt in the middle of the night.