Tuesday, February 28

Read of the Week: A Thousand Splendid Suns

I'm the kind of reader who meanders slowly through books—sort of “smelling every rose and daisy on the side of the road along the way” type of thing, if that even makes sense. Half the Sky, a book by Sheryl WuDunn and Nick Kristof that I can't recommend highly enough, took me approximately a month to read. I like to absorb every detail, taste each word and phrase individually and suck out every drop of meaning. I highlight, I annotate, I bookmark. Maybe it's because I borrowed Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns from a friend (and therefore couldn't mark it up with my random thoughts and comments) that I devoured it so quickly. But I think the real reason I sped through it in just a few days is that it was simply impossible to put down. Each character was so vivid, so real. I was completely absorbed in their lives—their pasts, their hardships, and their shaky futures.

Many of you may know of Khaled Hosseini's masterpiece The Kite Runner. I have not yet had a chance to read this novel, but from what I understand, if you connected with Hosseini's clear, true, and heart-wrenching writing style in The Kite Runner, you will definitely enjoy A Thousand Splendid Suns as well. A Thousand Splendid Suns takes place in Afghanistan from the mid-1960's to the present day, following the lives of two girls, Mariam and Laila, as they endure war, ethnic strife, loss of loved ones, and abusive marriage. Hosseini shows the political conflicts in Afghanistan—the Soviet invasion, the Taliban take-over, and life after the Taliban—through the eyes of ordinary Afghani women.

The relationships—mother and daughter, father and daughter, husband and wife, young lovers and childhood friends—are what make this novel so incredibly powerful and poignant. Hosseini makes us fall in love with a character, then absolutely hate her, then fall even more deeply in love with her again. He makes us sob at the loss of a loved one, then sob again—with joy—at a beautiful reunion. He takes us on an emotional journey with the characters nearly as tumultuous as the political strife happening around them. The Los Angeles Times said it well: “[He] offers us the sweep of historic upheavals narrated with the intimacy of family and village life . . . What keeps this novel vivid and compelling are Hosseini's eye for the textures of daily life and his ability to portray a full range of emotions, from the smoldering rage of an abused wife to the early flutters of maternal love when a women discovers she is carrying a baby.”

Besides the beautiful intimacy of the story, A Thousand Splendid Suns also imparts important lessons about the status of women, and the status of the developing world in the eyes of first world nations like the U.S. One of the two central characters of the story is Laila, a fair-haired girl born in Kabul, Afghanistan. Laila's father Babi, a university-educated, modern Afghani man, tells his daughter that under the communists, “it's a good time to be a woman in Afghanistan. And you can take advantage of that, Laila. Of course, women's freedom—here, he shook his head ruefully—is also one of the reasons
From Flickr by liber(the poet)
people out there took up arms in the first place. By 'out there' . . . Babi meant the tribal areas, especially the Pashtun regions in the south or in the east near the Pakistani border, where women were rarely seen on the streets and only then in burqa and accompanied by men. He meant those regions where men who lived by ancient tribal laws had rebelled against the communists and their decrees to liberate women, to abolish forced marriage, to raise the minimum marriage age to sixteen for girls. There, men saw it as an insult to their centuries-old tradition, Babi said, to be told by the government—and a godless one at that—that their daughters had to leave home, attend school, and work alongside men.” (Hosseini 121)

This passage struck me as a powerful statement about how changeable a society can be if it loses sight of what is important. Before the Taliban, at least in the wealthier parts of Afghanistan, women were free. Not only that, they were respected, even treated as equals. When the Taliban commenced their reign, everything changed—women were not allowed to leave their homes without a male relative nor even laugh aloud in public, or they would be beaten. I think it has been difficult—or perhaps unimportant—for many ordinary Americans to keep track of all of these changes, all of these details. As one character notes in A Thousand Splendid Suns: “Not that they give a damn in America, mind you. What do they care that Pashtuns and Hazaras and Tajiks and Uzbeks are killing each other? How many Americans can even tell one from the other?” (Hosseini 190)

The seemingly distant world of the Middle East, and Afghanistan in particular, can often seem confusing, overwhelming, and even hopeless. But after reading Hosseini's gripping, heart-wrenching story, it is impossible to ignore the fact that people—men, women, and children just like you and me—are living these horrors every day. I encourage you to read A Thousand Splendid Suns. It may be fiction, but its message is true and will be true for all time: we are all brothers and sisters, and we all deserve happiness, even in impoverished rural towns and faraway deserts.


  1. I wanted to thank you, quite belatedly, for your excellent review. I am like you, usually slowly meandering through a book, taking time to enjoy the words and phrases used, imagining all the details described, wanting to circle and mark all the things I love, but A Thousand Splendid Suns totally took me away to another place. Plus listening to it on audio was a total treat for the imagination and the ears while being read by a beautiful sounding woman's voice who could actually pronounce all the words that I would have muddled through! In fact, if you ever get time to "read" it again, I highly recommend the audio version, it is a blessed experience full of all the joys and heartaches you mentioned, but you feel like it is being told to you by Mariam and Laila themselves! Finally, please do read The Kite Runner if you haven't yet. There again, I did the audio version and felt like these were real people telling my their life stories. Khaled Hosseini is amazing that way! Plus I just finished his third book, And The Mountains Echoed, which on the contrary, may be a better book to read than listen to, since it has many, many more characters and jumps around the timeline quite a bit more. It's a more difficult read than his first two, but still full of excellent characters that draw you into their stories and how all these live are intermingled is fascinating. Enjoy and happy reading!

  2. I loved The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns not so much. Although it was still very good, it didn't have the same impact for me. He is a very talented writer.

    Reviews Plenty of Fish