A Thousand Splendid Suns sounds like a buoyant title that belongs on a “Top Ten Beach Reads” listicle. I pity the middle-aged woman who naively opens this up while lounging by the sea drinking a Starbucks unicorn Frappuccino.
Never mind. She’s made her bed, let her lie in it.
This 2007 novel by Khaled Hosseini comes four years after his bestselling debut into the literary world via The Kite Runner. Hosseini is a licensed physician who practiced medicine until he realized his hands could wield a scalpel and write brilliant prose.
A Thousand Splendid Suns is similar to The Kite Runner, in that both novels are set in Afghanistan during the tumultuous regime changes of the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. Each addresses how political calamity affected Afghanistan’s youth. The two novels differ in terms of gender, with A Thousand Splendid Suns focusing mainly on the females.
What I love most about Hosseini’s writing is his ability to deliver nuance when it comes to characters’ relationships with their war-torn homeland. Of course, it’s easy for Americans in the 21st century to think why don’t they just get the hell out of their terrible situation? Hosseini reminds us that Afghans have physical, emotional, and economic ties to their country, just like Americans have a deep affinity to Chili’s. Maybe that’s just me.
On the other hand, his characters aren't very complex. The novel follows two women—Mariam and Laila—separated by a generation. We see their lives as separate individuals until they’re inevitably and pitiably thrust together. I admire the two women’s resilience, and I appreciate that Hosseini intentionally set out to document the female voice; however, all of the characters he covers fall into neat little categories labeled “good” or “bad”. As a result, there is a flatness to the plot and an anticipation of what will occur when a specific character is present in a scene.
Perhaps because of the limitations of female agency in the country, there aren't many opportunities for women to do evil. For example, when the Taliban takes over, they inflict a series of rules. A large portion of the mandates are written explicitly for women, including but not limited to:
“You will not speak unless spoken to.
You will not make eye contact with men.
You will not laugh in public. If you do, you will be beaten” (Hosseini, 278).
If you’re forced indoors, required to wear inhibitive garb, and suppressed intellectually, there aren't many uoutlets for acting “bad”. Nonetheless, my observation stands.
Additionally, as a reader, I constantly expect something terrible to happen. His novel contains a series of inherent spoilers, because every time things start to go well-ish, you know it’s about to all come crumbling down. This isn’t a flaw per say, considering the subject has to be bleak given the setting. If events don't go south, I’d probably complain like a brat that the book is unrealistic. Still, these are all factors to be aware of when considering your next book (or beach-read).
While some Goodreads reviewers warn about the graphicness of the novel, I personally think that Hosseini did an expert balancing act—he depicts enough gore and viciousness to convey the severity of the characters’ plights, but he doesn’t attack us ruthlessly or unnecessarily. Additionally, the bouts of brutality don’t exist to glorify violence—they serve a broader purpose in the novel. As Laila observes, “every Afghan story is marked by death and loss and unimaginable grief. And yet…people find a way to survive, to go on” (Hosseini, 395).
Overall, I would let Hosseini write to me and operate on me. With this novel, he proves himself once again as an author who can masterfully communicate a horrible truth about historic events via a fictional pathway. A Thousand Splendid Suns receives 4 out of 5 camel humps.
*Hosseini, Khaled. A Thousand Splendid Suns. New York: Riverhead books, 2007. Print.