Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini

Cover image from Khaled Hosseini website

Khaled Hosseini has surpassed himself in his second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns (Riverhead Books 2007). This has been on my to-read list for some time. After I began it on a flight to London and finished it in a long queue at Gatwick Airport, I felt suffused in its atmosphere.

Hosseini's first book, The Kite Runner (Riverhead Books, 2003), made into a movie in 2007, was a sensitive portrayal of a sundered friendship between two boys. It began with an irreparable loss in a moment of childhood betrayal and portrayed the long and arduous journey through experience to right action and the peace that follows.

This novel also takes place in Afghanistan, but the main protagonists are female, seen first as girls and later as women. Maryam, who is named for the fragrant tuberose, is a harami, an illegitimate child of a wealthy man who has two other wives and several other children. Because her mother was a low-born maid, her father Jalil does not take her into his household; instead, he visits his little daughter where she lives with her embittered mother in a small hut on a hillside away from the town.

Maryam's mother distrusts men and warns her against them, even as she loves and cares for her little girl, who grows up quite happy. Jalil visits once a week, and Maryam loves him to distraction. She does not understand her mother's distrust of her father, or her dark prognostications that whatever goes wrong, a man points the finger of blame at the closest women.

When she is fourteen, Maryam makes a small but tragic mistake that turns her life upside down, forcing her into a marriage with a man nearly three times her age. In spite of her efforts and through no fault of her own, this union turns bitter, and Maryam lives shut up in her house until fate brings her in contact with a neighbour girl, Laila.

As rockets fall on Kabul and refugees stream out of the city, Laila loses her childhood playmate and best friend, whose family flees to Pakistan. When just days later, she loses her parents to a rocket, she is thrown into contact with the reclusive Maryam. Tentatively at first, the women share their stories; in the end, they form a bond as strong as life itself.

This novel is a paean to the human spirit. In spite of the cultural and historical forces that beat upon these two women and make them old long before their time, Maryam and Leila persist in their innocent refusal to give up on the possibility of love.

As well as being a lesson in the culture and history of Afghanistan, including the parts played by Western nations in its dire fate, this is a story of redemption. Told with resplendent light as well as horrifying shadow, A Thousand Splendid Suns rings absolutely true.

Be prepared to weep but don't be afraid to read to the end. In this novel, a reader can find the human truth and the moral solace that make good fiction so satisfying.

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