A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini [Book Thoughts]

All in all, mixed feelings about A Thousand Splendid Suns. Gripping portrait of Afghanistan and its women, but also cocaine for sadists.


A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini is an Afghan-born American author responsible for the heartbreaker The Kite Runner, a book more depressing than actual depression. Since Kite Runner‘s runaway (fly-away?) success in 2003, KH has quit his day-job as a doctor and become a full-time author. A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007) and And The Mountains Echoed (2013) are the produce of his full-time authoring. Hosseini left Afghanistan at a young age before countless wars tore it to pieces, yet all of his current fiction is set in his broken homeland.

A Thousand Splendid Suns tells the story of two women: Mariam and Leila. Mariam is a harami, a child born out of wedlock; the ultimate disgrace in Afghan culture. The first part of the book chronicles Mariam’s childhood and her interactions with her exiled housemaid mother and her wealthy father. Mariam’s story is a picture of the traditional Afghan culture before its destruction, of its hypocrisies, it’s awful gender politics and its obsession with social status and reputation. The reader’s heart really does go out to Mariam in this first of four parts.

The second part is the childhood of Leila, an intelligent young girl born on the cusp of Afghanistan’s war with Russia. Leila’s older brothers have joined the war against the Soviets; which has ruined Leila’s mother entirely. In this second part we see the degeneration of Afghanistan from the inside as the war escalates and comes to affect Leila’s world.

Between the two lead characters, A Thousand Splendid Suns is a portrait of women in Afghanistan, all their strife and struggles. How they’re equivalent to property, sold off into marriage at a young age and then given the sole purpose of taking care of a man (often 20+ years older than them) and producing his offspring (preferably sons). Splendid Suns shows the violence against them, the injustices and their despair.

The book is also a chronicle of Afghanistan as it was ravaged by the Soviets, then the Mujahideen and eventually the Taliban. We get to see Afghanistan’s gradual but painful destruction through the eyes of its everyday citizens who care nothing for war after war that continues to drag them in. Splendid Suns shines the most in its depiction of Afghanistan’s gradual decay and the women’s struggle.

Beyond the content, KH works neatly within the boundaries of traditional storytelling but it must be said that he’s an expert storyteller. He writes the kind of plots that keeps you up at night saying “one more chapter”. There are also many similarities between The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns; very much so in the characterization and plot development. One gets the sense that KH is designing his own tropes and character archetypes that he’ll continue to use throughout his writing.

A Thousand Splendid Suns does have a problem however, and it’s a big one; essentially the same issue as with Kite Runner. Readers of Kite Runner will know that it’s a harsh book depicting pain and misery and Splendid Suns continues this. While KH portrays his characters’ hardships well at first, and we feel pathos for them, it degenerates noticeably and as their suffering continues and intensifies (sometimes to absurd levels) the reader becomes more distant from it. Partly to blame of this is a degeneration of the characters themselves: they start out as relatable and sympathetic humans but over time deteriorate into mere torture puppets, featureless canvases for KH to inflict atrocities upon. And this only escalates. There’s a point in the story, I can’t say which point exactly, where it all becomes a little cartoonish and the suffering loses impact. I would even say that it becomes predictable and late on in the story, KH is recycling tricks he used 50 pages ago to tug at your heart strings before he dutifully concludes his novel (and to his credit, he does conclude it well).

All in all, mixed feelings about A Thousand Splendid Suns. Gripping portrait of Afghanistan and its women, but also cocaine for sadists.

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