A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

A Thousand Splendid Suns

A Thousand Splendid Suns was written by Khaled Hosseini, the author of The Kite Runner. I have not read The Kite Runner, which was a best seller, however based on my unexpectedly emotional response to A Thousand Splendid Suns, I will be reading it sooner rather than later.

A Thousand Splendid Suns begins with Mariam, a child who lives with her mother in Afghanistan. Mariam is a ‘harami,’ which she learns from her mother is something to be ashamed of, as a harami is a person whose mother is unmarried. As Mariam’s angry and unhappy mother Nana points out, a woman will always get the blame for a wrong.

Mariam’s father, Jalil, is a rich man who has three wives and nine legitimate children. He provides for Mariam and Nana, and his weekly visits to their isolated home are the highlight of Mariam’s life. Mariam has very little contact with the outside world, although she is taught her prayers and Koran recitations by Mullah Faizullah, who tries unsuccessfully to persuade Nana to allow Mariam to go to school.

When Mariam turns 15, she asks her father to take her to see a movie, Pinocchio at the movie theatre he owns. Jalil tries to disuade her and when he does not meet her at the time she has suggested, Mariam walks into town for the first time in her life. Mariam finds Jalil’s home and waits outside overnight, while Jalil hides inside, pretending not to be at home. In the morning Jalil’s driver takes Mariam home, where they find Nana dead. She has hung herself from a tree.

Life for Mariam goes from bad to worse. Jalil arranges a marriage for Mariam to a much older man, Rasheed and she goes to live with him in Kabul as his possession. Rasheed forces Mariam to wear a burqua and is unrelentingly cruel and violent towards her, which worsens as it becomes clear that Mariam will not be able to have a child.

The story moves from Mariam’s to a girl from Kabul named Laila, who is the daughter of Mariam and Rasheed’s neighbour. Laila’s father, Babi, is a teacher who wants the family to move to America, where their family would be free from the worsening misery Afghanistan is suffering from the Soviet invasion. Babi also wants a university education for Laila. Laila’s mother will not leave Afghanistan though and becomes more and more bitter and mentally unhinged following the death of her sons in the war. Laila’s freindship with a local boy, Tariq and his family, provide Laila with the love that her mother is no longer able to give her.

As Laila enters her teens the fighting in Afghanistan worsens and the remainder of the story is set against the background of the war, the reign of the Taliban and eventually the rebuilding of Afghanistan. Laila and Mariam’s stories eventually meet up and their lives are linked.

The death of main characters due to the war reminded me that the people of Afghanistan are the same as other people the world over, who are somehow able to hope and laugh and love in the midst of terrible times. Women are marginalised, brutalised and killed at the whims of those who are stronger, men are killed fighting for causes and innocent men, women and children are killed, maimed, starved and harmed in ways which are everyday events for the people of Afghanistan.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is beautifully written. Although the story is sad and the setting horrific, Mariam and Laila retain their dignity and continue to do the best that they can to live according to their values. This book was a massive eye opener for me and a reminder of how lucky I am to live free of the constraints these characters endure.