Saturday, 11 April 2009

A Thousand Splendid Suns - Khaled Hosseini

Read: April 2007

A Thousand Splendid Suns surpasses The Kite Runner in every sense. It is a truly harrowing tale of love and friendship set against the backdrop of a country tearing itself apart. With its powerful anti-revolutionary rhetoric and depiction of quiet family life destroyed by wider political events it is oddly reminiscent of an Afghan Doctor Zhivago. There is no doubt that Khaled Hosseini has written another global bestseller.

The plot follows the lives of two women brought together in exceptional circumstances. Mariam has grown up in a tiny shack in the forest, a shameful outcast from her beloved father’s home. But her childhood ends the day she returns home to find her mother dead. Rejected again by her father and his three jealous wives she is married off to Rasheed, a widower who is thirty years her senior.

Laila is born on the night of the Soviet Coup in 1979 and just 14 when her childhood sweetheart flees Kabul. Barely three weeks later her parents are killed by a stray rocket from which she only just survives. Injured and homeless she is taken in and nursed back to health by Rasheed and Mariam, but with an ulterior motive. Rasheed intends to make her his second wife. She consents as a last option, the only means to protect a secret that is growing inside her. Thrown together as the political climate grows ever more repressive Mariam and Laila could be rivals but they are in the same boat and have a common enemy. What ensues is a story of friendship and camaraderie and the amazing sacrifices parents make for their children.

I once wrote that reading The Kite Runner was like staying at a Butlins in Kabul. Amir’s half-hearted, self-aggrandising remorse and the sense of faux cultural authenticity felt wrong. It was too biographical, too over-sentimental. But the first thing that strikes you about A Thousand Splendid Suns is that reading it is nothing like a stay in a holiday camp. There is very little redemption to be found here, save that of mere survival against overwhelming odds. It is a more powerful and harsh depiction of the Afghan landscape he visited so fleetingly in The Kite Runner. The scene is set in the first chapter when Mariam’s mother offers this prophetic warning:

“Learn this now and lean it well, my daughter: Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman.”

A Thousand Splendid Suns is a tale of unmitigated tragedy and hardship. If anything can turn you into a man hater then this it is. It is a catastrophic story about a country smoking in the ruins of war and the degradation men can impose upon women. The novel is a requiem to the years of endless horror and a celebration of a broken city. The title is lifted from a poem about Kabul which Laila remembers her father quoting from, “One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs/ Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.” Hosseini’s portrayal of Kabul is alive with sights and smells, it is vibrant and instantly recognisable.

Above all this is a story of survival against the odds. It is a tale of love and friendship and sacrifice told in a warm and sympathetic voice. Hosseini is a very talented storyteller: he knows when to set the merest hint of mystery and when to offer a comic interlude. He is adept at creating rounded, powerful characters who make you laugh and cry in equal measure. Where The Kite Runner was a paean to childhood and broken innocence, this is a celebration of parenthood and the power of parental love to triumph even when faced with the most horrific of situations. Ultimately the title could easily have been 'A Thousand Splendid Sons and Daughters,’ it is a homage to all those generations of families who never enjoyed the life they deserved.

The problem with Khaled Hosseini’s fiction is that he can never escape Afghan history. It is a shame that he is unable to steer clear of the events of 9/11, let the history everyone knows about act as an unspoken buffer. It is a sign of weakness in his prose style that he has to tell you everything, he is consistently unable to let events speak for themselves without explicitly stating what he means. You also cannot help but speculate that if he were writing about another country without the contemporary significance of Afghanistan then he would have had less success.

But overall, this book is less sickly sweat that The Kite Runner and the plot is tighter. Its characters are more intimately powerful and the landscape is drawn with a fine and exact brush. The prose remains easy and unpretentious; reading it is a delicious frenzy of conflicting emotions. The bleaker landscape and harrowing plot should not put anyone off for this is a novel well worth reading.

6.5 out of 10

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