Khaled Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, but writes English well with a simple, pure writing style. His first novel was THE KITE RUNNER, a favorite with reading clubs across the United States. That book tells a power story of two boys who are close friends growing up in Kabul. The main character in a moment of cowardice betrays his friend to save himself. It is a sin that he carries with him all his life, eating at him until he reluctantly submits to doing a dangerous and selfless mission to atone in part and to expiate his sin. The boy, like Hosseini himself, left Afghanistan to live in the United States and to write. The character's mission of self-redemption takes him back to an entirely different Kabul under the barbaric rule of the Taliban. The main character is much like Hosseini himself and the book is about the relationships of male friends and of fathers and sons. In particular it shows the destructiveness of the Taliban to males. As bad as that is, Hosseini recognizes that the plight of women under the Taliban is far worse. That situation is explored his second novel, A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS.
First, the bad news about A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS. Because this story is not autobiographical he could tell any story he wanted. He chose an apparently borrowed framework. His story is at base a retelling and amplification of Alice Walker's THE COLOR PURPLE. It is much broadened and the setting is very different, but the situation and even the plot is much the same. Each is the story of a young woman who is forced into a loveless marriage with a much older man who uses her as a slave and as a target for abuse. The situation goes on for years and just when it seems it can get no worse the husband brings another more attractive woman into the household. The two rivals conflict and fight for the number two position in the household until they realize they have more in common than they have differences. The hatred turns to a solid friendship and genuine affection as well as a shared hatred for the offensive husband. They team up against the abusive husband. That plot fits both stories. Its lack of originality is the one demerit of Hosseini's otherwise fine book. Since THE KITE RUNNER was for me a new plot, I would rate that book a little higher. But SUNS is still an engrossing and excellent read. [A small admission here. My knowledge of THE COLOR PURPLE is based on the film. I have not read the book.]
In this novel Mariam was always mistreated as a child because as an illegitimate daughter she was a family embarrassment. At fifteen she is married off to an abusive husband of forty-five, Rasheed. She lives in virtual slavery to the brutish and physically repulsive Rasheed. I do not remember one scene in which Rasheed rises above being a hissable villain. But a new indignity is coming to Mariam.
Rasheed takes a second young wife, Laila, the daughter of a wealthy family who is pregnant by another man, Tariq, who was her true love. Laila receives word that Tariq has been killed in battle and resigned herself to marriage with Rasheed. After many long months of a rocky start Mariam and Laila find a genuine affection for each other. Each helps the other through her difficult situation in the household.
But there are worse things in the woman's lives than Rasheed. We are given a background of the wars in Afghanistan and the two women seem to suffer with each regime change. But when the Taliban take control the situation becomes truly harrowing and nearly unbearable. Women are treated lower than animals. Most medical facilities are male-only. The conditions at the rare and distant women's hospitals are completely barbarous. The descriptions of the "hospital" are nightmarishly the most haunting images of the book.
Both of Hosseini's books will be an education for Americans on the concentrated evil that the Taliban brought to Afghanistan. The first book had a scene of the stadiums in which women are stoned to death in front of large audiences. The newer book has the stadium stonings become an important part of the plot. In that sense the two books dovetail.
Both books are about courage. THE KITE RUNNER also focuses on cowardice, guilt, and responsibility. A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS is more about victimization, which perhaps is not so uncommon a theme. Both books are an education in the barbarity of the Taliban and what they have done to Afghan society. Two such books are an impressive start to Hosseini's career.
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2008 Mark R. Leeper