In war-torn Afghanistan, millions suffer and endure. Men use weapons against foreign invaders and each other. Women face daily violence while coping with harsh customs and laws that render them second-class citizens.
After a smash-hit first novel, The Kite Runner, Afghan-born Khaled Hosseini seizes a golden chance to tell the world about the plight of his nation’s women in his second book, A Thousand Splendid Suns (2008, Bloomsbury, 421 pages).
“I suppose there were some easier roads I could have gone down. But I chose this one because, both as a writer and as an Afghan, I couldn’t think of a more riveting, important or compelling story than the struggle of women in my country. Dramatically speaking, every other topic paled in comparison….
“The gender apartheid that has been forced on Afghan women has been one of the great unresolved injustices of the modern world. In addition, Afghanistan needs its women. The whole project of rebuilding Afghanistan is doomed if the fundamental human rights of its women are not respected and its women are not allowed to participate.”
Starting in the 1970s, Hosseini follows two fictional female characters – Mariam, from Herat, and the younger Laila, from Kabul — through more than three decades of personal and national turbulence. He explores their “inner lives” and seeks “the very ordinary humanity beneath their veils” in a “tribute to the great courage, endurance and resilience of Afghanistan”.
These heroines meet as adversaries married to the same abusive man (Rasheed, a shoemaker), but then they forge a firm friendship. Somehow they cope until one must make a supreme sacrifice for the other.
How abusive is Rasheed? “Up close, his sneering face seemed impossibly large. Laila noticed how much puffier it was getting with age, how many more broken vessels charted the tiny paths on his nose. Rasheed didn’t say anything. And, really, what could be said, what needed saying, when you’d shoved the barrel of your gun into your wife’s mouth?”
Little in A Thousand Splendid Suns (the title comes from a 17th-century poem) reflects well on Afghan men. As Rasheed declares, “Where I come from, one wrong look, one improper word, and blood is spilled. Where I come from, a woman’s face is her husband’s business only.”
With feminine wiles, Mariam’s mother warns: “Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always.”
Consistently interesting and competently written, this book still falls short against the lofty expectations for Hosseini. Too much of the plot parallels that in The Kite Runner, which told of two boys who endure tragedies to become honorable adults. Here, two girls do likewise amid love, hate, turbulence, cruel traditions and too many explosions.
Hosseini’s novels share a theme. “…how every Afghan story is marked by death and loss and unimaginable grief. And yet… people find a way to survive, to go on.”
The most fascinating passages tell of daily life, like the sensation for women to wear an all-concealing burqa. “The padded headpiece felt tight and heavy on her skull, and it was strange seeing the world through a mesh screen. She practiced walking around her room in it and kept stepping on the hem and stumbling. The loss of peripheral vision was unnerving, and she did not like the suffocating way the pleated cloth kept pressing against her mouth.”
In one horrifying scene, Laila receives no anesthetic when giving birth by Cesarean section in a dismal hospital. “Laila’s eyes snapped open. Then her mouth opened. She held like this, held, shivering, the cords in her neck stretched, sweat dripping from her face, her fingers crushing Mariam’s. Mariam always would admire Laila for how much time passed before she screamed.”
Background events – from the Soviet occupation to the rise of the Taliban and the post 9-11 American invasion — have the familiar ring of past newspaper headlines. “Outside, rockets were zipping across the sky as Hekmatyar‘s and Massoud‘s forces fought and fought. Laila knew that somewhere in the city someone had just died, and that a pall of black smoke was hovering over some building that had collapsed in a puffing mass of dust. There would be bodies to step around in the morning. Some would be collected. Others not. Then Kabul’s dogs, who had developed a taste for human meat, would feast.”
Almost everyone reaches the same crisis: “As much as I love this land, some days I think about leaving it.”
Yet the author still finds humorous moments: “Today, Hasina was dispensing advice on how to fend off unattractive suitors. ‘Foolproof method, guaranteed to work. I give you my word…. Beans. No less than four cans. On the evening the toothless lizard comes to ask for your hand. But the timing, ladies, the timing is everything. You have to suppress the fireworks ’till it’s time to serve him his tea.”
Born in Afghanistan in 1965, Hosseini moved to Paris where his father worked as a diplomat. Later he attended university in California, became a doctor and then an author.
By any measure, A Thousand Splendid Suns deserves glowing praise. Just don’t expect it to soar to the same heights as The Kite Runner.