I remember my mother effusively praising The Kite Runner when it came out a couple of years ago. Picking up the book, I was spellbound by a thriller in a new location, with prose that was poetic but highly readable. It was a superior page turner, but I could not give it the effusive praise that reviewers from around the web like Keith Law or Caribou’s Mom had. The plot twists got a bit too unwieldy, and Hosseini had a habit of foreshadowing at the end of every chapter that had the subtlety of a brick through a window. However, the book was very well done, and certainly showed potential for greatness. I wanted to see what Hosseini would do next.
Put simply, A Thousand Splendid Suns is a masterpiece. It is better in every way than The Kite Runner, while not losing Hosseini’s masterful storytelling ability. The plot is more assured and less melodramatic, its villains more plausible, and it’s heros journey more heart-tugging, and given the tribulations of Amir and Hassan in the earlier novel, that is saying something. The story begins with the marriage of Maryam, born illegitimately to a Herat businessman and his maid. Ostracized due to this status, she is eventually married off to the much senior Rasheed. The marriage, as one can imagine, was based on subjugation — women’s rights were not precisely celebrated. As the story continues, we are introduced to Laila, a girl in Kabul whose life is shattered by the rise of the Taliban, and she and Maryam end up in each others orbit. The book is about their friendship and time together, and that is all the plot that I will describe.
What is left to praise is how much information and commentary Hosseini weaves about Afghanistan, the Soviet era, and the Taliban. Really with his two novels, Hosseini is taking not-especially-innovative stories – this story is really a genre story in many ways – but using them as frames to erect a very specific story about a very specific society – and paradoxically creating a universal story as a result. One of the questons I always hear when discussing this part of the world is “what must it be like for women?”, and this book provides at least some interesting thoughts. Hosseini does not portray the situation – at least under Soviet rule – as entirely bad, and tradition is valued. It is not as cut and dried as an outsider might see it. Even Rasheed – who is one of the great villains I have ever encountered in a novel – is not impossibly evil, but he acts in a way that fits into what men were taught to expect at the time. One learns through him much of how men could be steered in a society set up so patariarchically.
At the end of the day, the story contains a lot of simple themes that any reader can relate to. It is a classic, old fashioned narrative, but wrapped in a new package and told by an author with an amazingly gripping voice.