Best-selling author Khaled Hosseini spent a year working for the UN refugee agency as an envoy trying to bring aid to the more than 2 million displaced people from Hosseini's homeland of Afghanistan. Many of them have fled due to a bloody civil war, violent coups and terrorist militias that have ravaged and destroyed that country.
A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS is the story of two Muslim women who have been so displaced. It highlights the losses they suffer, the sacrifices they make and the redemption they seek as they watch the transformation of their home and every thing they ever knew, as it changes around them. But at its heart this book is about family, parents and children. It's a subject certainly not new but into which Hosseini taps with rhythmic clarity, as to absorb the reader into a culture, making you care and eventually weep for it.
Normally, I would take some time to read a book, take in a few chapters a day, and slowly digest it, but not here. From the moment I first started reading this book, I couldn't stop. I read the whole thing in one night because I became so absorbed. Hosseini cleverly crafts his story and characters as to involve you in a way that you have to keep turning the pages.
Hosseini slyly teaches his readers Pashto, his native tongue, by interjecting words into the text until no translations are needed when characters say things like nikka or khala, and you instinctively know that they mean wedding and mother, respectively. He makes you comfortable with the language and along with it the Muslim culture in which you are immersed.
One way he does it is by pulling you along by the hand of a child. Through the eyes and mind of a young girl named Mariam and then another named Laila, we see this world and over time, as they come to understand it, we do too. Mariam, a 15-year-old Afghan girl, lives outside Herat, a city in a western Afghanistan valley. Her world is pretty simple and the only question that plagues her is why she can't spend more time with her father, a man known as Jalil Khan. He is a prominent man who owns a movie theater as well as other shops in and near Herat.
It's 1974 and all Mariam wants to do is go to her father's theater and see Pinocchio with him, but she's not allowed. What follows becomes a serious analysis of the traditions and social constructs that further deny women in Afghanistan and not allow them to do a lot of things.
From an American standpoint, there are a lot of rights and freedoms that Afghan women don't seem to have and many in that civilization are fine with it. But some aren't and many seek to challenge it. Hosseini is one of them. Having lived there and seen it, challenges it through his characters.
The first is the fact that like with so many women, Mariam is forced into an arranged marriage at the age of 15 to a 40-year-old man who proceeds to take her virginity and impregnate her. Hosseini then takes us on the journey of this 15-year-old girl until she's in her 40s and watch, as she faces one debilitating hardship after another and how a lot of it is out of her control.
It's forced on her. She's defeated. She's, figuratively and literally, beaten, but out of it all you also see a great strength arise. As with other great stories like The Color Purple, we also see the courage and tolerance of women. In fact, chapters three and 14, Hosseini talks about endurance. He writes, "Women like us. We endure." He later writes in a solemn woman's voice, "How quietly we endure all that falls upon us." Hosseini echoes this point, which is referred to as tahamal, to prepare us for the heartache that does fall on his two heroines, and I believe he does so not simply to garner pity. Obviously, sympathy is built up only to be released at the end with me gushing tears over the pages. However, Hosseini does what any great writer would so that on the flip side we can appreciate the good things and the beauty that's also around if we just stop to see it.
Hosseini divides the book into four sections. The first two introduce us to his two female characters separately. The third joins their storylines, and the fourth shows us what rises after all the dust. And, in the first section, Hosseini proves himself a keen user of natural symbols and of nature in general, even the limited nature of Afghanistan's rugged terrain. He brilliantly in chapters five and chapter 13 uses the idea of a "gust of wind" to represent motherhood, at one point the end of motherhood, and in the latter the beginning of it.
Laila is 17 years younger than Mariam. Hosseini starts her story just as he starts to interject the actual history of Afghanistan of the past 30 years. This includes the war against the Soviet Union leading up to the rise of the Taliban, and their Draconian rule of law. Hosseini here and there drops nuggets of knowledge and facts regarding the political turmoil, the tribal differences, and carnage that spilled a lot of blood and left a lot of bodies on the street. But, Laila's introduction contrasts all that. Hers is a genuine and sweet love story. She falls in love with a boy named Tariq who takes her to the movies, defends her from bullies who shoot urine at her with water pistols. In one scene Hosseini has Laila's father take them both on a road trip to Bamiyan Valley where their love is offset by a love of the country and the landscape's gloriousness.
Hosseini's writing here is very reverent and plucks the humanity out of the horror, and the appreciation out of the apathy. Hosseini also has a knack of not plucking out but inserting in the middle of things great, moving, singular passages. Two that are of note are at the beginning of chapter 20, where Hosseini describes a mother's grief at the loss of her child, and the other is in the middle of chapter 25, as Hosseini describes a woman's first sexual moment.
In both cases, in one paragraph, Hosseini briefly conveys a wealth of information, short sentences involving great images and great emotions. It's great reading. It's also in moments like this where Hosseini can be very poetic in his prose and I wonder if in chapter 26 when he writes, "Only two weeks since he had left, and it was already happening. Time, blunting the edges of those sharp memories," that Hosseini realizes he's tapping into the poetry of Shakespeare.
In his Sonnet #19, Shakespeare wrote, "Devouring time, blunt thou the lion's paws, And make the earth devour her own sweet brood," Similar wording between the two and also similar ideas from both writers about the passage of days and its effect on memory and love makes me think either great minds think alike, or Hosseini knows how and when to copy greatness.
This book draws you in, but you find once in, the pages fly by quickly dancing back and forth between earnest drama and historical significance to soap opera high-fallutin, but all balanced very well. From the Titantic movie fever in Kabul to a woman considering a self-induced abortion to poignant observations in chapter 51 like, "On windowsills, Laila spots flowers potted in the empty shells of old Mujahideen rockets," this is one of the best books of 2007.
Five Stars out of Five.
Hardcover: 384 pages.