A Thousand Splendid Suns is another remarkable story from Khaled Hosseini. Like the Kite Runner, this book is set against the backdrop of turbulent times in Afghanistan, but unlike Hosseini’s first novel, ATSS focuses on female relationships; about love and loss and endurance, making it a superb choice for a book club.
I’m going to try to summarize the book without giving the whole story away, but if you plan to read this anytime soon, you might want to stop here and skip to the last couple paragraphs.
The two main female characters are Mariam and Laila. The novel begins when Mariam, a harami (illegitimate child), is 15 years old. After her mother’s suicide she goes to live with her wealthy father, his 3 wives and their 10 children. Soon she is married off to Rasheed, a much older man.
Mariam can’t catch a break. First her mother kills herself, then she’s treated as a second class citizen by her own father, then she’s married off to an old, abusive man who doesn’t allow her to have friends, talk to people, or show her face in public, and who beats her on a regular basis because she is unable to give him a son. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Laila, a smart and stunning young girl born to one of Mariam and Rasheed’s neighbors shortly after they marry, grows up and falls in love with her childhood friend, Tariq. When the political situation in Kabul starts heating up, his parents decide it’s time to move to Pakistan. He begs Laila to come, but she stays behind with her parents. They have a quick “indiscretion” before he goes, shocking each other with its intensity. After Tariq’s departure, Laila’s parents decide they, too, should leave Kabul. As they are packing up, a bomb hits their house, destroying their home, killing her parents and badly injuring Laila.
Rasheed and Mariam take 14 year old Laila in. Mariam nurses her back to health. Soon the disgusting Rasheed decides he’d like to have Laila as his 2nd wife. Learning Tariq has been killed, Laila, harboring a secret, agrees to marry the old man. In my head, I was screaming, NO! He’ll hurt you! But it was the only way for her to survive after losing everyone she had to count on. Women had no freedoms, weren’t allowed to work, travel without a male chaperone, etc. How would she support herself? So they marry, and then Laila has the audacity to give birth to a female child. Rasheed loses whatever kind feelings he had for her at that point. But then the two wives, after some initial tension, form an unbreakable, familial bond that will endure huge challenges and obstacles.
Spanning almost three decades, from about 1975 until just a few years ago, there are a lot of historical events happening throughout the story. The political unrest worsens as the Taliban take over and women are more oppressed than ever. I felt huge empathy for these women and their lack of freedom and basic rights. I related to their maternal sides, their protectiveness toward Laila’s children and toward each other.
I loved this book. As brutal and intense as some of it was (particularly in Rasheed’s final scene), it spoke to me on a deep emotional level. I cared about these characters. I desperately wanted things to work out for them. I’m no expert on Afghanistan history or culture, but it’s possible that the portrayal of some of the characters was a bit stereotypical (actually, that would be my only criticism of the book-it’s beautifully written).
Khaled Hosseini is a brilliant storyteller. If you love a good story that isn’t all sunshine and roses, this might be the book for you. It’s number one on my list of Favorite Reads of 2008!
Reading Group discussion questions can be found HERE.
Khaled Hosseini’s website is HERE.
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