Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Book Description:
Propelled by the same superb instinct for storytelling that made The Kite Runner a beloved classic, A Thousand Splendid Suns is at once an incredible chronicle of thirty years of Afghan history and a deeply moving story of family, friendship, faith, and the salvation to be found in love.

Born a generation apart and with very different ideas about love and family, Mariam and Laila are two women brought jarringly together by war, by loss and by fate. As they endure the ever escalating dangers around them-in their home as well as in the streets of Kabul-they come to form a bond that makes them both sisters and mother-daughter to each other, and that will ultimately alter the course not just of their own lives but of the next generation. With heart-wrenching power and suspense, Hosseini shows how a woman's love for her family can move her to shocking and heroic acts of self-sacrifice, and that in the end it is love, or even the memory of love, that is often the key to survival.

A stunning accomplishment, A Thousand Splendid Suns is a haunting, heartbreaking, compelling story of an unforgiving time, an unlikely friendship, and an indestructible love.

When I read The Kite Runner earlier this year (my first book of 2008) I considered it one of the best books I'd ever read. I was swept up in the world of Afghanistan, a culture I knew nothing about. Everyone said his next book A Thousand Splendid Suns is even better. Well, I disagree. Yes, it was good, but to me, it didn't have that gut wrenching story that went straight to my heart.

This is the story of two women, Mariam and Laila. For most of their lives they are at the mercy of men. Poor Mariam is told endlessly all her young life that she is a bastard, her mother relentlessly drums it into her head, warning her that men will always be the cause of a woman's misery (in so many words) and unfortunately, in Mariam's life it was pretty true. She is forced to marry a merciless older man, Rasheed, who makes her wear a burqa and ignores her (except when he's beating her) once he realizes that she is never going to bear him a son.

The other woman, Laila, has a sad life too. It begins well, but as her mother sinks into depression, her household begins to fall apart and the war in Kabul (where they live) can no longer be ignored. The danger is too great and Laila loses the most important thing to her, her friend and lover, Tariq, who must leave Kabul with his parents. From there, Laila's life goes downhill. The bombs falling on the city wreak havoc in her family and she is told Tariq is dead. She winds up marrying Rasheed, becoming his 2nd wife (he has two at the same time now.) Rasheed is in his 60's and Laila is only 14 and pregnant (though no one knows this, hence why she has agreed to marry Rasheed.)

I found the book compelling and read it in two days, but it was very, very depressing. The story was sad, but I did not cry for them, despite the life these women had. It was hard and dismal and Rasheed was awful to them. I was rooting for them every chance they had to escape, but all along though, in spite of the tension and drama of the book, I did not feel close to them. I didn't feel like I was in their skin, in their place as I did in The Kite Runner. I was reading about their woes and miseries dispassionately. Ironic, since this book was about two women (like me), but maybe it's because the author, who is an excellent writer, just doesn't hit the mark writing from a woman's point of view, in my opinion.

I do think as a rule, men have a hard time writing a woman's story and making it believable from their point of view. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule (I can't think of one right now) but this entire book was from both Mariam's and Laila's point of view. Even by the end, which was supposed to be a moving, cathartic, dramatic beautiful ending, I didn't feel much. Mariam makes the ultimate sacrifice for Laila's freedom, but for some reason it didn't affect me as much as I think it should have. Part of the reason is it took Mariam and Laila a long time to like each other, Mariam was very cold to Laila at first feeling her position as wife was usurped by this young kid who she nursed back to health. The novel told their story of getting to know one another and being sister/mother to each other, but I didn't feel like I was in the thick of it with them. Instances were described where Mariam went out of her way to help Laila and vice versa but it wasn't that emotional for me. Maybe it's just me, I don't know.

All in all, it was a good book and I loved reading about life in Afghanistan again, a different side of it, lasting almost 30 years from the late 1950's to 2003. I learned a lot about the war against the Soviet Union in the 80's and then the rise of the mullahs and the Taliban and how women were forced to bow down to the men again and lose all their freedom, it was brutal what they had to go through - and only 10 years ago!


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