Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
At the beginning, A Thousand Splendid Suns did little to win me over. Its characters seemed shallow, transparent: Mariam’s mother was vindictive and manipulative, her actions and reactions shockingly outsized. Mariam marries Rasheed, who turned out to be exactly the kind of one-note bully I expected him to be. Even when Laila entered the story and began her slow, awkward, inevitable dance with Tariq, I was still not convinced. But then the communist regime fell and Afghanistan once again descended into civil war and anarchy, and suddenly I started to pay more attention to Khaled Hosseini’s juxtaposition of national turmoil with personal strife.
I really like the movie Charle Wilson’s War, and not just because Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s performance is hilarious. It is a fascinating account of a senator’s struggle to fund the mujahideen, the “freedom fighters” who opposed the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. In many ways the film is inspiring: facing scepticism, political opposition, and the spectre of treading where only Congress should go, Charlie Wilson managed to change U.S. foreign policy and contribute to the mujahideen’s success. But as always the universe wants the last laugh. Wilson and his allies helped to create a power vacuum, which was eventually filled by the oppressive Taliban regime. The film ends on this bittersweet note, leaving us to recall how often the taste of triumph and hope turns sour as certain groups attempt to seize power and twist freedom to their own ends.
A Thousand Splendid Suns begins when Afghanistan is still a monarchy, albeit one on shaky, treachery-ridden legs. As the story progresses, the monarchy fall to communism, the invasion by the Soviets, the mujahideen uprising, the rise of the Taliban, and the interstitial civil wars. Finally, we arrive at 2001 and the American invasion. Each time the country changes hands, various characters reflect upon how they anticipate life becoming better (or worse). This book is by no means a history lesson, though as someone born in 1989, I did find it somewhat enlightening. But it does give a good idea (at least as far as I can tell), of how the Afghan people might have been reacting to the global events of which their country was a central part. And it exposes the diversity of political attitudes that took hold of Afghanistan.
In particular, women’s rights metamorphosed a great deal. As Mariam is growing up, she hears about women who go to university, women who wear “Western-style” makeup and clothing. When the communist PDPA are in power, they do not respect civil liberties and freedom of thought all that much, but they support women’s rights, particularly education. This is a sharp contrast to the Taliban, who imposed a severe Islamist vision upon the people of Afghanistan, reducing women to little more than the property of their male relatives. Indeed, one of the most chilling parts of this book (and there are so many) comes in the form of a proclamation posted about Kabul, forbidding the publishing or reading of books, and severely limiting the rights of Afghan women. These events accompany a darker episode in Mariam and Laila’s marriages to Rasheed, and Hosseini manages this microcosm very deftly.
Hosseini deals a deluge of setbacks to all of his characters; they have to put up with a lot of hardship from him. This includes Rasheed, who is for me the most problematic character. On one hand, he is almost a caricature of the stereotypical, oppressive, abusive husband. He beats his wives, treats them like less than dirt, dotes over his son, ignores his daughter. I can understand why Hosseini might see Rasheed as a necessary character; with a nicer man in his place the story would not have worked. Perhaps this is why he balanced, to some extent, the darkness of Rasheed with the lightness of other men in Mariam and Laila’s lives, such as the Mullah, Babi, or Tariq. Hosseini shows us very bad men and very good men—I wish he had shown us good but flawed men trying to do right and making some mistakes. One could argue, strongly, that Jalil falls into this latter camp—but we barely get to know him.
That sense of abridgement persists to other areas of A Thousand Splendid Suns. After a brief time spent with Mariam following her marriage, we skip forward fourteen years before seeing her again. To his credit, Hosseini telegraphs how Mariam’s marriage has progressed in the interim and how this has affected her as a person. Yet I can’t stop wishing I had seen this gradual transformation instead of witnessing the end result and hearing some of the highlights. It’s interesting: much like movies, books can have “deleted scenes” (whether or not they were actually written) that add different interpretations or dimensions to the story. What a writer chooses not to say can be as important as what ultimately makes it to the page.
There’s something about A Thousand Splendid Suns that reminds me of A Fine Balance. Both novels are set in tumultuous Asian countries during the latter half of the twentieth century and follow a close-knit group of characters fallen on hard times. And it sucks for Hosseini, because A Fine Balance is just so damn excellent that anything similar shrinks by comparison. Yet I still feel I am being fair, because by looking at the two together, I can see what A Thousand Splendid Suns lacks that prevents me from celebrating it as much as Mistry’s novel. Just consider their respective lengths: Mistry chose to include details that Hosseini, in comparison, omitted or elided as I described above. There is no one right choice, but A Fine Balance demonstrates that a story like this can work even as a much longer book.
Then there’s the ending. If I were charitable I might call it romantic, but slapsdash slides off the tongue so well! I have issues with what Mariam and Laila’s relative fates. Laila discovers that Tariq is alive—surprise, Rasheed, the lying bastard, paid someone to convince her that Tariq was dead! But Rasheed discovers Tariq’s return and takes it out on Laila so severely that Mariam finally takes matters into her own hands: she kills Rasheed. There is a moment of stillness when this happens that is perhaps the best part of the book’s third act. But then Mariam goes to turn herself in and Laila and Tariq live happily ever after in Pakistan for a little while. Oh, Hosseini tries to build some marital conflict into their life, but it’s the same type of half-hearted characterization that mars the earlier part of the book.
I did not intend to be this harsh, honestly. Yet every time I go to praise A Thousand Splendid Suns, I find this praise eroding into criticism. I guess I have to conclude that this is a good book with numerous flaws; your enjoyment will, as usual, depend on whether you think the flaws detract from the larger themes. For example characterization could be better—by which I mean fuller, deeper, and in more detail—but, in my opinion, Hosseini’s ability to depict his characters in the context of Afghanistan’s successive governments mitigates this problem. While not a literary masterpiece, this is a stunning novel with emotional and historical resonance. I may not be able to rave about it, but I will remember it far longer than I do most books I read.