You know you are in the hands of a masterful storyteller when you put a book down only because you have no choice – life drags you away and it’s a physical and emotional wrench to let it go, even for a moment. When all you can think as you go about compulsory tasks are the story and the characters. While you are away, you wonder what they are doing, where the narrator is going to take them and you care about their fates deeply. Such is the effect of A Thousand Splendid Suns. The characters live beyond the pages – not merely at the end, but throughout the reading experience, so realistically and gorgeously have they been drawn.
Just as the sublime The Kite Runner told the tale of doomed male friendship, ATSS tells the story of two very different Afghani women: Mariam – shy, subservient, filled with self-doubt and yet, despite what life has meted out, is also honest and possessed of an innocence that is both her greatest strength and weakness. Then there is the beautiful, smart and kind Laila. Raised under very different roofs and with different expectations of their future, fate in the form of political and sectarian upheaval throws these women together and what happens before, during and after is heart-wrenchingly bitter-sweet.
Hosseini knows not only how to capture the reader’s imagination but our hearts as well. Told without sentimentality but nonetheless with an almost unbearable sweetness and pathos, ATSS unapologetically describes what the women of Afghanistan (and many men, children, families and thus communities) were forced to endure. The rampant misogyny, sexism and horrific abuses; terror, hope, the loss, the grind, the joy in the smallest and simplest of things; their constant sacrifices. Their resilience is formidable and humbling; their strength amazing – as is their capacity to forgive. By focussing primarily on Mariam and Laila (and those who play important roles in shaping who and what they become) Hosseini gives us a searing insight into not only the plight of those who are helpless pawns in a brutal battle for control of a weakened state, but Western prejudices, sense of entitlement and misunderstanding as well as revealing the ugliness and terrible beauty of a culture so few of us understand except through snatches from sensationalized news bulletins or from foreign correspondents with a brief to fill. That there are those resistant to as well as complicit in oppression, suffer because of willful ignorance and the brutality of others; the way in which religion and culture can impose horrific restraints when reduced to power struggles while at the same time gesturing to a proud nobility is evident in the novel. Inevitably, as is the case when religion, sex and gender become politicized, there are scapegoats who pay for the hubris and cruelty of others – for more than a lifetime. The damage inflicted can last for generations.
I didn’t want this book to end. My heart soared, it plummeted; I gasped, cried, held my breath and as I read felt physically pummeled then embraced, experiencing the 30 years the tale covers as a visceral thing that left me psychologically and imaginatively battered but richer in ways that count. But, I also felt ashamed. Ashamed for thoughts I may have harboured deep down, for prejudices I may not have even realized I held until this novel exposed them to me, and for that, I am grateful.
This is a beautiful, deeply moving book that I cannot recommend highly enough. It was a privilege to read and now to share.