“One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs,
Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls”Kabul by Saib-e-Tabrizi (Hosseini 172)
For my very first review I’ve decided to talk about Khaled Hosseini’s novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns. This was an easy choice for a review since it is one of my favorite books of all time. I read the book in June 2018, and it’s still a novel that I consistently recommend to friends and family members. I think that that speaks volumes for the impact that its had on me as a reader. I’ve always believed that a mark of great writing is its universality. Hosseini’s writing appeals to our human pathos and breaks down social and cultural barriers. We connect to the characters unique experiences and traumas regardless of our different life, culture, and experiences. The story of Mariam and Laila is set in a country so different from my own, yet I felt such a deep empathy for them as women. Before proceeding with this review, I am warning now that this review contains a brief plot overview and may contain spoilers.
A Thousand Splendid Suns features the stories of two Afghan women named Mariam and Laila. Through their narratives, the reader gets a stunning portrait of Afghanistan’s history and culture over the course of the last forty years or so. The novel begins with the story of the elder woman, Mariam. She is an illegitimate child and lives on the outskirts of town with her mentally abusive mother. From a young age, Mariam is warned that “like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman” (7). As she gets older, she is forced into an arranged marriage with an older man named Rasheed, and she moves to the city of Kabul. As she gets to know him, Rasheed becomes increasingly restrictive and abusive. In the second section of the book, the plot shifts to Laila’s story. In stark contrast to Mariam, Laila has a privileged upbringing. Her father supports her education and encourages her to follow her dreams. Their separate narratives converge as the political situation in Kabul worsens. Laila finds herself forced to marry the same overbearing and abusive husband as Mariam.
Hosseini nurtured this story out of personal experiences of Afghanistan, depicting a land rich with beauty and a resilient people ravaged by war and occupation. In early parts of the novel, Hosseini wrote lengthy passages describing the cosmopolitan city of Kabul, Herat, and the beautiful landscape of rural Afghanistan. These passages are poetic and illuminating. It is obvious that Hosseini is writing about his home country in these passages. The language of the landscape drips with nostalgia and love. As a reader, I felt such a strong desire to see this city with my own eyes, to experience the rich smells, the clamorous city noise, and the vibrant people. It was heartbreaking to read such vividly descriptive passages about the beauty of Afghanistan knowing how the country was subsequently destroyed by war. The intention in writing about Afghanistan before the war is to impress upon the audience the culture, beauty, and potential of a country that was ravaged during war-time occupation. (Author Diane Ackerman employs a similar writing technique in her book, The Zookeeper’s Wife, when she describes the city of Warsaw before the devastation of Nazi occupation in WWII, but I digress.) In just a few decades, the country is occupied by Soviet forces, gains independence, suffers under the rule of the Taliban and is bombed by American forces following 9/11. Civilian lives are constantly at risk because of the political climate. Mariam and Laila’s experiences show the destruction of the country and how it has impacted their lives. As one character states “And that, my young friends, is the story of our country, one invader after another […] But we’re like those walls up there. Battered, and nothing pretty to look at, but still standing” (132). While the atrocities committed against innocent civilians is horrific and the destruction of culture is devastating, Hosseini impresses a powerful message of resilience and strength of the Afghan people, particularly the Afghan women.
The most powerful message of the novel was the depiction of women’s autonomy in relation to the policies of the state; Societal conventions historically pressure women to conform to gender stereotypes, but the most powerful oppressor over bodily autonomy is government policies. As a woman myself, I felt such deep empathy with the female characters and their experiences. Mariam was born into a world that was not kind to her; She was labelled as a harami, and she never had the opportunity to get a formal education. As a result of her upbringing, she learns to be quiet, obedient, and docile. She acquiesces to her husband’s patriarchal demands as a means of survival. Laila, in contrast, is raised to speak her mind, and she actively undermines male authority. The message shows that women are only given rights and liberty by the mercy of the government. Hosseini outlines this basic dilemma in global gender inequality showing that women are constantly subject to the ever-changing laws of the state. In the fragile, war-torn state of Afghanistan, the conservative laws and societal pressures become increasingly restrictive on the lives of women. Policies that women were forced to abide by included: dressing modestly, wearing a burka, marrying a man with multiple wives, not being able to travel without a male guardian, and not having access to basic medical care. Hosseini used these characters who the readers have grown to know and love to show the ways in which policies can rob a woman of her rights and, in doing so, even put her health and life at risk.
Without placing too much emphasis on this element of Hosseini’s book there is also a really beautiful romantic relationship in the novel between Laila and her childhood friend, Tariq. I will not say how that relationship unfolds or the fate of the characters, but I will say that it pulled on my heartstrings. I loved the playful banter between the young pair, and I adored the character of Tariq. It was so achingly sweet to feature this relationship in the early parts of Laila’s story. The only reason I bring up Laila and Tariq in this review is to advertise that there is a little bit of romance if that is something that you value in the stories you choose to read.
Perhaps it is surprising (or maybe not) that I often recommend this book to men. I once recommended this book to a male friend after we had a conversation about feminism. He previously criticized the movements for which activist feminists protest today. I tried explaining the reasons that I strongly support the mission of feminism (aka: the mission of equality). In order to show him why feminism is important I gave him A Thousand Splendid Suns, and he loved it. I was completely overwhelmed by his response. He experienced a huge change of heart that completely caught me off guard. I’m not saying he suddenly agreed with everything I had to say. I’m sure he still has his reservations, however his connection to the characters in the story moved him. Literature has the power to open our minds to a perspective that we could not understand before. Fittingly, Hosseini dedicates the novel “to the women of Afghanistan” showing that this novel represents their narrative and sheds light on their struggles.