A couple of months ago, I posted a review of the Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. In 2007, he published a new novel: A Thousand Splendid Suns. It is the best book I have read since... well, since the Kite Runner... As far as I am concerned, this is "The Book of 2007".
Hosseini takes his title from a 17th century poem by Saib-e-Tabrizi, which sings the praises of the ancient and cultured city of Kabul: “One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs, or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.” The lines are chanted by one of Hosseini’s characters as the bombs of the mujahideen are destroying Kabul. (Does this remind you a bit of the bitter contrast between war and poetry I described in "Lost Connection"?)
The book starts in the 1970's Afghanistan, and tells a story of Mariam and Laila over a period of three decades. In the background Afghanistan struggles from the rule of King Zahir Shah, via the Sovjet invasion, the civil war during the mujahideen, the ruling of the Taliban and finally the US invasion.
Initially, both main characters start with their own individual story.
The first story is about Mariam, Nana and Jalil's extramarital child (a harami). Mariam is only fifteen when her mother commits suicide. She is sent to Kabul to marry the troubled and bitter Rasheed, thirty years her senior, desperately hoping for her to bear him a son.
The second story follows Laila, born around the time Mariam moves to Kabul. Laila grows up as a beautiful and intelligent young girl, finding love with her childhood friend, Tariq.
As the Mujahideen start their battle for Kabul, tragedy strikes. Tariq flees to Pakistan and is thought to have died on the way. Laila's parents are killed in a bomb attack leaving orphaned, fifteen-year-old Laila, no other option but to marry Rasheed, as his second wife.
Here the two stories become one powerful stream of conflicts, love, violence, fear, shame and hatred. Laila and Mariam start off on the wrong foot, but slowly find consolation in each other, mainly rooted in what they have in common: their hatred and fear for their husband. With the passing of time comes Taliban rule over Afghanistan, and with it, life becomes a desperate struggle against starvation, brutality and fear. The women's endurance is tested beyond their worst imaginings. Yet love can move a person to act in unexpected ways, and it is love which leads them to overcome the most daunting obstacles.
"A Thousand Splendid Suns" is a jewel. An absolutely wonderfully told, heart-wrenching story of an unforgiving time, an unlikely bond and an indestructible love. It took me in from the first page until the last, and I just "could not put the book down". Khaled Hosseini's story-telling skills which I discovered in "The Kite Runner", blossomed and bloomed in this new book. I have lived and worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan for several years around 2000. I could just pick up the smells and sounds as I read through the story. An example:
Mariam had never before worn a burqa. Rasheed had to help her put it on. The padded headpiece felt tight and heavy on her skull, and it was strange seeing the world through a mesh screen. She practiced walking around her room in it and kept stepping on the hem and stumbling.
The loss of peripheral vision was unnerving, and she did not like the suffocating way the pleated cloth kept pressing against her mouth.
“You’ll get used to it,” Rasheed said. “With time, I bet you’ll even like it.”
They took a bus to a place Rasheed called the Shar-e-Nau Park, where children pushed each other on swings and slapped volleyballs over ragged nets tied to tree trunks. They strolled together and watched boys fly kites, Mariam walking beside Rasheed, tripping now and then on the burqa’s hem.
For lunch, Rasheed took her to eat in a small kebab house near a mosque he called the Haji Yaghoub. The floor was sticky and the air smoky. The walls smelled faintly of raw meat and the music, which Rasheed described to her as logari, was loud. The cooks were thin boys who fanned skewers with one hand and swatted gnats with the other.
Mariam, who had never been inside a restaurant, found it odd at first to sit in a crowded room with so many strangers, to lift her burqa to put morsels of food into her mouth. A hint of the same anxiety as the day at the tandoor stirred in her stomach, but Rasheed’s presence was of some comfort, and, after a while, she did not mind so much the music, the smoke, even the people. And the burqa, she learned to her surprise, was also comforting. It was like a one-way window. Inside it, she was an observer, buffered from the scrutinizing eyes of strangers. She no longer worried that people knew, with a single glance, all the shameful secrets of her past...
But it is not only in the long impressionistic descriptions that comes the full flavour of the book. It is also sometimes in passages, short and sharp as a razour:
Nana put down the bowl of chicken feed. She lifted Mariam’s chin with a finger.
“Look at me, Mariam.”
Reluctantly, Mariam did.
Nana said, “Learn this now and learn it well, my daughter: Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam.”
If you are still not convinced, read chapter one and chapter 11. (courtesy Amazon.com)
Update Jan 10: "A Thousand Splendid Suns" is Amazon's Book of the Year 2007.
As a note of interest:
Khaled Hosseini is an Afghan born son of a diplomat and a teacher who now lives in the US. In 2006 he was named a goodwill envoy to UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency. An author with a mission. Have a look at the video he made from a visit to the refugee camps in Chad.
More recommended books from The Road.