Thursday, September 6, 2007

Book Review: A Thousand Splendid Suns

A Thousand Splendid Suns is the complex, horrifying, tender, and perceptive story of Mariam and Laila, two Afghani women. The book traces their lives and unlikely friendship over nearly 40 years, beginning when Mariam, at age five, learns that she is the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy man.

Mariam and her epileptic mother, Nana, lived for 15 years in a tiny shack an hour's walk from the city where her father lived with his three wives and nine legitimate children. Tutored by the village mullah, Mariam longed to go to a real school like her father's other children. But her mother refused, telling Mariam she needed to learn only one lesson: to endure.

At 15, Mariam finds herself living in Kabul, married to a much older man, Rasheed, a traditional Muslim who requires her to wear a burqa. "A woman's face is her husband's business only," he tells her. Her life in Kabul becomes a study in endurance, interspersed with brief moments of hope and happiness.

Laila grows up five houses away, the daughter of a modern, educated, bookish father and a bipolar, neglectful mother. Her dream is to marry her childhood playmate, Tariq, but when bombs drop on Kabul, Tariq's family leaves for Pakistan. Fourteen-year-old Laila, secretly carrying Tariq's baby, becomes Rasheed's second wife, and eventually, Mariam's friend and ally.

Hosseini writes easily and convincingly from the perspective of an Afghani woman, capturing Mariam's ambivalence about the burqa (at times unnerved, at times comforted by the anonymity it offered) and her surprisingly tenacious grief after a miscarriage.

His tale spans four decades of neighborhoods pulverized by rockets; political power bouncing between the Communists, the Mujahideen, and the Taliban; and zealous misogyny. But it’s interesting that Hosseini’s novel, that chronicles so much sorrow and suffering, bears an optimistic title borrowed from the lines of a 17th century poet:

Every street of Kabul is enthralling to the eye
Through the bazaars, caravans of Egypt pass.
One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs
And the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.

Year after year, Mariam hardly noticed the wars and the upheaval. She endured; she survived. “The past held only this wisdom,” Mariam believed: “that love was a damaging mistake, and its accomplice, hope, a treacherous illusion.”

But Hosseini’s title is not a broken promise. Mariam discovers that her mother was wrong: life is more than endurance. Love, friendship, beauty, hope—all of these glint like ribbons of mica in a chunk of gray shale.

A Thousand Splendid Suns took me on an epic and heartwrenching journey, and as journeys do, it changed me. It gave me new insight into a distant land and an even more distant culture. At the same time it reminded me that, even though the forms and features of societies can be vastly different, suffering still demands justice; beauty still inspires; and love still conquers all.

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