Saturday, April 16, 2011

Book Review: A Thousand Splendid Suns - Khaled Hosseini

This is one of those books that I picked up on the sale table for like $3 a few years ago and I just got around to reading it.

The story is set in Afghanistan and it spans the time period from 1974 through 2003. It follows the lives of two women in Kabul, Marian, who is from Herat and Laila, who is born in Kabul.

Mariam is the illegitimate daughter of a cinema owner named Jalil. Her mother was a maid in his home and when she got pregnant by him he built her a kolba, a little house out on the outskirts of the village and made her and Mariam live there. Nana (Mariam's mother) is bitter and angry, of course. She is the one made to suffer, to be insulted by the village while the man, Jalil, is still respected. Still lives in town with his three wives and his legitimate children. Nana is also somewhat manic depressive and suffers from 'attacks from a jinn' which, from the descriptions, are really epileptic seizures. Mariam, though, doesn't know or understand all of this. All she knows is that she loves her parents and wants to be a part of her father's life. To live in the big house in town with her brothers and sisters.

One day, when she's fifteen, Jalil breaks a promise to come see her. So she travels all the way into the village. Her father refuses to let her in the house, sends out his drive to tell her that he's not home, but she knows that that's not true. Mariam is actually forced to sleep out in front of her own father's house on the street. One of the consequences of this little event is that Jalil and his wives decide to marry Mariam off. They marry her to a man about 40 years old, keep in mind that Mariam is 15, named Rasheed. He lives in Kabul, which is far enough away that Mariam's family never need to see her again.

At first, Rasheed treats Mariam as though she is precious. Then, she has a miscarriage. From that point on, he changes. Becomes abusive.

Fast forward another 18 years. Laila, who is a neighbor of Rasheed and Mariam, is 14 years old. She is in love with her best friend Tariq, and the warlords of Afghanistan, with the Soviets gone, have turned on one another.

"Morning brought no relief. The muezzin's call for namaz rang out, and the Mujahideen set down their guns, faced west, and prayed. Then the rugs were folded, the guns loaded, and the mountains fired on Kabul, and Kabul fired back at the mountains, as Laila and the rest of the city watched as helpless as old Santiago watching the sharks take bites out of his prize fish."

People are getting killed all the time by roving bands of mujahideen or missiles. Tariq's family evacuates and Laila's is about to follow, to flee to Pakistan, when a missile hits their house, killing her mother and her father, leaving Laila an orphan.

Rasheed takes her in and marries her. Again, everything is fine, Laila is the queen of the house, while Mariam is little better than a slave. At least, that's the way Rasheed treats them. In reality, Laila wants nothing more than to be a friend to Mariam.

The story follows their lives and the pain and suffering that they face. But it shows the joys too, and the friendship, the family bond that develops between Mariam and Laila. It goes through the wars, the battles, and then the coming of the Taliban. At first, the Taliban are greeted as a good thing, but then it becomes clear that things are not going to go back to the way they were before the Soviets came. This is the announcement that the Taliban play through the streets of Kabul, written on fliers and tossed out to the people:

"Our watan is now known as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. These are the laws that we will enforce and you will obey:

"All citizens must pray five times a day. If it is prayer time and you are caught doing something other, you will be beaten.

"All men will grow their beards. The correct length is at least one clenched fist beneath the chin. If you do not abide by this, you will be beaten.

"All boys will wear turbans. Boys in grade one through six will wear black turbans, higher grades will wear white. All boys will wear Islamic clothes. Shirt collars will be buttoned.

"Singing is forbidden.

"Dancing is forbidden.

"Playing cards, playing chess, gambling, and kite flying are forbidden.

"Writing books, watching films, and paining pictures are forbidden.

"If you keep parakeets, you will be beaten. Your birds will be killed.

"If you steal, your hand will be cut off at the wrist. If you steal again, your foot will be cut off.

"If you are not Muslim, do not worship where you can be seen by Muslims. If you do, you will be beaten and imprisoned. If you are caught trying to convert a Muslim to your faith, you will be executed.

"Attention women:

"You will stay inside your homes at all times. It is not proper for women to wander aimlessly about the streets. If you go outside, you must be accompanied by a mahram, a male relative. If you are caught alone on the street, you will be beaten and sent home.

"You will not, under any circumstances, show your face. You will cover with burqa when outside. If you do not, you will be severely beaten.

"Cosmetics are forbidden.

"Jewelry is forbidden.

"You will not wear charming clothes.

"You will not speak unless spoken to.

"You will not make eye contact with men.

"You will not laugh in public. If you do, you will be beaten.

"You will not paint your nails. If you do, you will lose a finger.

"Girls are forbidden from attending school. All schools for girls will be closed immediately.

"Women are forbidden from working.

"If you are found guilty of adultery, you will be stoned to death.

"Listen. Listen well. Obey. Allah-u-akbar."

This is a book about war, but not in the epic sense of it. This is about how it affects the people on the ground, the people who want nothing to do with it, but have to suffer the consequences of it. It's a book about two women and the things that mothers will do for their children, to keep them safe.

It's an absolutely fabulous book. I didn't expect to enjoy it as I did. The author also wrote another book, The Kite Runner. I haven't read it, but I ordered it so as soon as I get it, I'll be reading it. I think the author is just that good.


  1. Oh, you reminded me why I enjoyed this book so much! It really puts a human touch to war as you said by showing how wars influence the ordinary people just living their lives. It's sad how the people thought the Taliban - being Muslims - would be good for the country, but instead they were so ruthless. Thanks for this review!

  2. Having read both this one and The Kite Runner, I can tell you that most people (that I know) tend to fall in two camps and greatly prefer one over the other. I have to admit I'm in the Kite Runner camp. Mind you, it's not that I didn't like A Thousand Splendid Suns, but I read The Kite Runner first, and it was so amazing, I was pretty disappointed when I read A Thousand Splendid Suns. I felt there were parts where (I think it was Laila, but mind you I read it like 3-4 years ago), is described, and the terms almost made me want to puke cause I felt like I was reading a sleazy romance novel. But aside from that one very low point, I generally did enjoy it and I think I still gave it 4/5 stars (whereas The Kite Runner was a clear 5/5, and a favourite).

    But I'll be interested to read your review of The Kite Runner as well.

    Ah, just found my review of ATSS (2008): I absolutely loved and adored Khaled Hosseini's first book The Kite Runner. A Thousand Splendid Suns is by all means not a bad book, but I have to admit it didn't quite live up to my expectations. It seemed a bit cliché and I'd seen pretty much all of the turns and twists long time before they happened. I don't know why really, it just didn't seem as heartfelt as in his first book. However, I'd have to admit one thing, I almost always read my books in English (if it's the original language), because I often feel that the Danish translations aren't as good, this time however, I was visiting my mum when I finished The Kite Runner and I was so keen on reading A Thousand Splendid Suns that I borrowed her Danish version, and I kept having the feeling that I was missing out on something - just because I thought Khaled Hosseinis language was much more beautiful and astonishing in The Kite Runner.

    And my thoughts on TKR (2008):
    Beautiful. Heartwrenching. Sad. Bittersweet.It broke my heart and somehow managed to mend the pieces back together while I still had tears in my eyes, but a bittersweet smile on my lips.

  3. I read The Kite Runner first as well. I thought they both were great and different enough that it wasn't like I was reading the same book twice. The one guy who was such a, I just adored him. That book was so touching and made me cry. I should find my reviews on it to remember what all I thought of it. Hmmmm.

  4. Susanne,

    I'm not entirely sold on books that don't involve aliens or vampires of one kind. I have my needs! Anyway. I probably wouldn't have picked this book up if it wasn't on sale. :) But I'm very glad I did.

  5. Becky,

    I think this is one of those things that happens a lot. Like people who see a movie first vs. reading the book. They tend to like what they're exposed to first, best if they like it at all.

    Huh. There wasn't any section in the book where the women were described that dove into the sleazy romance novel level. Maybe it's something in the translation? Then again, it's possibly one of those things where my tolerance level is different from others. Like with horror movies. :)

  6. I read both books last fall. "A Thousand Splendid Suns" really pissed me off. Laila and Mariam's husband absolutely enraged me, but I was satisfied with his fate at the end.

    "The Kite Runner" was very sad, with bullies and all the violence of "Suns".

    Both books were very good, though. Like you, I wouldn't normally have picked them up, but I was glad I did.

  7. Hmmm, like I said in the review, might be because I read the Danish translation (which I pretty much never do if I have a choice), but the section was one where (I think) Laila was described with the colour of her beautiful hair, the fairness of her skin and the beauty of her eyes (or something similar to that, don't recall the exact description since it has been 3 years ;) It just seemed so out of touch with the rest of the book it really annoyed me.

    And yes it is very true that people tend to like best what they read/saw first. *cough*Love in the Time of Cholera (saw the movie, then finally read the book and I almost didn't get through it)*cough*

    But then again, there are some wonderful authors that don't disappoint with their second book... such as Jonathan Safran Foer (I'm praying he'll release a third novel soon!), I first saw the movie, Everything is Illuminated, then read the book which I loved even more, then read his second novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and that was incredible too. Both of you, I strongly recommend them! Those are some of my favourite books.

  8. Heather,

    Oh, yeah. Rasheed's end could have come a whole lot sooner, in my opinion. I kept waiting for one of them to brain him or poison him or *something*.

  9. Becky,

    He did describe Laila, but it didn't seem over the top to me. It could be, like you said, translation, or it could just be perception. I've read a lot of books that really, really go overboard with the descriptions of beautiful people, so my tolerance for that may be skewed higher than yours. :)

    I will have to look that author up. I've never heard of him. Thanks!

  10. Yeah is quite possible (both translation and your tolerance being higher than mine). There's a reason why I prefer reading the books in their original language, cause I've seen too many botched translations (you'd think they'd be able to do a proper translation from English to Danish, but no), I mean, my tendency is so high, that frequently I'll prefer to read the English translation even if the original was in Spanish/French/Japanese etc. Though that is partly because I love discussing books and posting quotes etc., and I mainly do that in English, not in Danish. The only time I really read books in Danish is if it's originally in Danish, or if my library only has it in Danish.

  11. Must be an enjoyable read A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal, this book is going in by "to read" list.


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