A Thousand Splendid Suns
by Khaled Hosseini
Two Afghan women are forced to live together when Rasheed, a shoemaker, decides to marry a second wife. His first wife, Mariam, is the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy man from Herat. Her mother killed herself when Mariam was fifteen, so she is hastily married off and sent to her husband’s home in Kabul. After many years, their union remains childless, so Rasheed weds Laila, a beautiful young girl twenty years younger than Mariam. Mariam resents the younger wife’s intrusion into her home, but she softens towards her when she sees that Rasheed treats his new wife just as harshly as the old one. A friendship is forged between the women as they struggle to survive in a city torn apart by war.
The novel is divided into four parts. The first section centers on Mariam’s childhood in her small village. She is educated by the village mullah and every Thursday is visited by her father, who brings her trinkets and toys. Life isn’t idyllic by any means; her mother is emotionally unstable and Mariam is known to be a bastard, but compared to the political turmoil that tears Afghanistan apart in later years, it’s a peaceful, happy childhood. The second part is about Laila’s childhood, twenty years later, in the midst of the bustling city of Kabul. The difference in how the two women were raised is night and day, and only helps to raise tensions when they are eventually brought together under Rasheed’s roof.
I don’t know much about Afghanistan save what I learn from the nightly news: it’s a country struggling to pull itself together after being divided by wars both internal and manipulated by other countries. Between Mariam and Laila, almost fifty years of Afghan history is showcased through the eyes of women, often the most marginalized. In a general sense, I know that life in Afghanistan can be horrible for women, but it’s always been a very remote knowledge. Khaled Hosseini brings his characters to life in vivid prose that makes it extremely difficult to remain distant from the suffering and discrimination women face on a daily basis. One scene that resonated with me long after I closed the book was when a very pregnant Laila is turned away from a hospital because it’s not a womens’ hospital. She had to travel to another hospital on the other side of town, and even then she couldn’t be treated very adequately because there were barely any doctors and virtually no medical supplies. Even if women are inferior and inherently sinful, you’d think a woman giving birth (possibly to a son!) would be able to get treatment at a ‘regular’ hospital.
I think everyone in this book suffers, whether the pain is physical or emotional. It’s dark at times, and depressing. But there’s a little ray of hope suffused throughout, and the source of the hope is love. Everyone feels love, whether it’s love of family, of country, of friends, or romantic. This love is ultimately transformative; Mariam’s affection for Laila’s children strengthens her and heals her heart of bitterness and sorrow. It is at the core of the book and makes A Thousand Splendid Suns a real pleasure to read.
5 out of 5 stars