I’ve had a strange relationship with A Thousand Splendid Suns. I knew it would be an amazing book because it was recommended by a good friend with nearly identical reading preferences to my own. All the same, I didn’t want to read it. I avoided the book as much as possible. I took different paths around my apartment, shelved it incorrectly on my alphabetical bookshelves, and stuffed it into a bag for a week. Yet when I did pick it up and start reading, I couldn’t put it down.
I didn’t want to read the book because I knew what was coming – a glimpse into the lives of Afghan women. In some respects, I read about the existence I knew I would. There was all the oppression, abuse, and violence I knew there would be. But I also found something else in this book that I did not expect – hope, grace, and moments of happiness.
A Thousand Splendid Suns tells the story of two Afghan women set against the chaotic political turmoil of the last thirty years. Miriam is born a harami—an illegitimate child—in Herat and raised in a small country shack. At the age of fifteen, she is given in marriage to Rasheed and taken far from her home to Kabul.
Laila is a child of the next generation. She is born the night the Soviets invade Afghanistan, and her life is marked by that war. Both brothers killed in the jihad fighting for the Mujahedeen, Laila is left to care for her inconsolable mother and fulfill all the aspirations her academic father had for his children. For comfort, she has only her friends. Among them is Tariq, whom she has fallen in love with. At age fourteen, Laila is cast adrift by Tariq’s departure for Pakistan and the missile that kills her parents.
Miriam and Laila’s lives collide in a way as violent as the wars ravaging Kabul. Taken as the second wife of Rasheed, Laila is pitted by him as Miriam’s rival. The women find solace in each other, however, when the lowliness of their lives unites them.
I was, at first, unsure if Hosseini could do justice to this story. I am naturally skeptical of men writing about a woman’s life (and vice versa) because I believe we experience the world in different ways. I thought the same thing when I read She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb. Hosseini won me over much more quickly than Lamb with his sharp insights and empathy.
A Thousand Splendid Suns reminds me of the ancient Greek tragedies. There is no happiness for Miriam and Laila. I found hope, however, in the way these two women refuse to submit themselves to the life they are proscribed. Whatever they endure, they still find the strength to continue on, and that strength comes from their ability to love. I won’t say this is an uplifting story. I cried plenty while reading this book, and at some unexpected places. I will say that this book celebrates the human spirit and, for that reason, the story is not as depressing as it seems at first glance.
Book Information: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
Riverhead Trade, 2007. 432 pages.