A Thousand Splendid Suns: Not so splendid for some

It’s taken me a long time to write about this book.  Some if it is due to scheduling issues (I’ve been busy), but I suspect that more of it is due to the fact that I’ve needed more time to mull over my impressions of the book.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, recounts the recent history of Afghanistan through its impact on the lives of two women.  Mariam, the illegitimate child of a wealthy man, grows up in a rural hovel with her bitter mother.  She idolizes her father, not comprehending why she can’t live with him and what her status is in Afghani society.  After her mother’s horrific, spiteful death, she is married off to Rasheed, a much older, brutal, misogynistic man.  In contrast, the beautiful Laila, about 20 years younger than Mariam, grows up in a (mostly) loving family and is pushed to learn by her father.  Her family’s life is tragically touched by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the tribal warfare that follows.  At 15 Laila becomes Rasheed’s (Mariam’s husband) second wife when her parents’ death leaves her with few options for survival.   In a time when law gives men absolute tyranny and domination over women and women have no value other than the sons they produce, Laila and Mariam become allies and each other’s saviour.      

I approached this book with some dread because:

  1. I had to buy it at full price from Barnes & Noble because I was a slacker and didn’t check it out from the library ahead of time and there were no copies available for weeks and weeks, and I very rarely buy brand new books anymore due to the cost and how fast I read 
  2. I’m not especially interested in Afghanistan or Iraq.  I don’t read articles about them.  I don’t watch movies about them.  It’s a topic I want to avoid.
  3. Sometimes you have a sense that the events in a book are going to be so horrific that you really don’t want to read about them.  When I opened the book, the phrase, “it will end up badly” flitted through my head.  

But the book was for book club, so I needed to read it.  First of all, it was a technically easy read.  It kept my attention, and I was able to read it in a few evenings.  That was good. The book is overwhelming.  I cannot imagine what it would be like to live in a society like theirs and live through events that Mariam and Laila did.  Both women were so strong.  Afghanistan seems truly like another world compared to my comfy life in NC.  I’m glad that Hossein wrote a novel about the experience of the Afghani women.  I had heard about life in Afghanistan, but the book really brings home the degradation and deprivation in which women live.   Hossein’s descriptions of Afghanistan were surprising…I’ve never thought of the country as a very lush, green place, but it is or at least it was. 

Nobility and honor are revered in Afghani society.  The men profess that their edicts are tied to those concepts, but their actions bely that.  How can it be honorable to treat women like dirt under the guise of “protecting” and honoring them? How can it be honorable to value sons so much but send women off to squalid hospitals to give birth without proper care or medicine (especially anesthesia!)?  Instead it is the women who exhibit true nobility and honor.  Even after everything Rasheed has done to her and Laila, Mariam still honors him as the head of their household and father of Laila’s children.  In similar circumstances, I don’t know if I could do that.  I’m not saying she should have, but in many ways she is a far better and stronger person than I am.

This novel was painful.  Mariam’s miscarriages really affected me.  Her whole life got to me.  I preferred her to Laila…maybe because she wasn’t pretty and didn’t have the advantages that Laila had…a loving family, first love, children, a future.  Now that I think about it, the only part of the book that I didn’t like was the difference between Mariam and Laila.  Everything bad happened to Mariam.  Ok, yeah, bad stuff obviously happened to Laila too but it seemed like more bad stuff happened to Mariam.  Her life was just a series of bad events.  It was unrelenting.  I envied Laila the good things that happened to her (few that there were) and wished some of them had been doled out to Mariam.  Talk about being born under an unlucky star!  It’s as if she was cursed at conception…as if her illegitimacy was a stain she couldn’t escape.  Mariam’s fate is complicated.  I won’t ruin it, but it’s powerful.  I can’t believe it unfolded the way it did, but I understand how for the one and only time in her life, she had taken control of her life and chosen her own destiny, and for that, I salute her.

Also recommended:  One Thousand White Women:  The Journals of May Dodd (Fergus) Another book for which I had the feeling of “it will end up badly.”


One Response to A Thousand Splendid Suns: Not so splendid for some

  1. Amber says:

    I avoided both this book and The Kite Runner for many of the reasons you gave–mainly the thought that it will be overwhelmingly depressing and a series of misfortunes. You have confirmed my feelings on this.

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