'A Thousand Splendid Suns'

Perhaps because it is the second novel of Khaled Hosseini, whose debut novel, The Kite Runner, was a publishing triumph; or because Muslim culture is a topic of increasing interest; or because word quickly spread that it is a well written story -- or possibly for all three reasons, A Thousand Splendid Suns has sat for fourteen weeks in the New York Times bestseller list.

On the surface the novel is the portrait of a friendship between two Afghan women, Mariam and Laila. But for a reader unfamiliar with Afghan history and culture it represents a lot more. Primarily it stands as a depiction of all the hardships Afghanistan has had to endure over the last thirty years. Secondly, it describes the hardships endured by women during those years. Lastly, it provides an example of the ambiguous way in which men are often raised in the Muslim culture: as fathers and protectors but also as unquestionable rulers.

This story reveals most of its intellectual attraction when seen as a literary guide to the recent history of Afghanistan, a nation that had enjoyed a period of stability but started to experience political problems which made the country more vulnerable to the soviet occupation. After the soviets left, Afghanistan found itself in a state of civil unrest and poverty, which did not change for the better with the subsequent rise to power of the Taliban. Any reader unfamiliar with what this turmoil meant for this country can find vivid descriptions in these pages. However, although history is tied up with the plot, it remains in the background. The story develops through the experiences of Mariam and Laila.

Born from a non-marital relationship, Mariam has been made to grow up in a kolba, a small hut in the outskirts of Herat where she lives with Nana, her mother. Mariam's father, Jalil, visits her weekly and fills her with stories about the beauty of Herat, the city where he lives with his three wives and children. Mariam has received little education but, like any child growing into adolescence, and stirred by Jalil's tales, she starts to hope for future happiness.

Laila is born roughly twenty years later in Kabul. Her mother, once a lively and cheerful housewife, falls into a deep sadness when she sees her two other children go to fight the jihad against the soviets. Laila's father remains a calm, sensitive and committed teacher. Laila enjoys the company and friendship of Tariq, a crippled boy with whom she shares a rare view of the world, distinct from that of their peers. But Laila finds her universe shaken by the war and her hopes and dreams are marked by tragedy.

The narrative thread will join these lives in a horrifying scenario and the challenge the story will bring about is that of building up a friendship from the debris of the women's personal hopes and dreams.

Faith, appreciation of the beauty of small things, and fortitude are portrayed as virtues necessary to a woman and mother; these, along with proofs of generosity and kindness offered throughout the story, make this book valuable reading. However, there are scenes of brutal violence and occasional, unnecessary excursions into sensuality that some readers may find disturbing. The fast-moving action is expressed in masterful prose, but the rapid succession of events that lead the characters to moments of absolute desolation makes it difficult for the reader to reflect in-depth on each tragic episode.

The publisher's blurb states that "Hosseini shows how a woman's love for her family can move her to shocking and heroic acts of self sacrifice." Indeed, there is one particular and outstanding defence of unborn life -- and a great lesson of contrition. But some others are not really acts of love but of desperation.

The choices the characters make are strongly influenced by the extreme circumstances under which they are forced to live and their need to survive. The reader needs to ponder these decisions carefully in order to assess the moral implications. Actually, acts of love or even a struggle for the sake of the family may not appear as such at first sight -- and the opposite may also be true. Polygamy is one of the controversial aspects of Muslim culture presented. Behind its portrayal, the desire women and their children have for respect and exclusive love is evident.

It is puzzling that a story using so much violence and depicting deeply shocking events has had such an overwhelmingly positive response from the general public. However, the search for a light of hope at the end of the tunnel and the self giving and non-idealized love portrayed are values that make it appealing reading. Furthermore, the desire to build a better Afghanistan for future generations, caught in the poetic title, adds another point of interest to A Thousand Splendid Suns.


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