Monday, November 23, 2009

Book Review – A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini writes with power and surety, producing another best seller with A Thousand Splendid Suns.  This is his second novel, following close upon the heels of The Kite Runner, and like the earlier book deals with the troubled history and people of Afghanistan.

Two women, Mariam and Laila, a generation apart, are thrown together under painful circumstances. (What in this country isn't painful, especially for its women?) Tyrannized by those who hold dominion over them, the two women eventually find common cause and unite to face their enemies.

Mariam, the illegitimate daughter of a prosperous businessman, is married off to Rasheed, a Kabul shoemaker. She is only 15. But when it becomes apparent over the years that Mariam will never produce a male heir, Rasheed's domination over his wife escalates into verbal and physical brutality.

Enter Laila, a girl of 14. It is now the early 1990's, after the Soviets have left the country and the mujahideen are fighting for control. Laila, whose parents are killed in a rocket attack, is given aid by Mariam and Rasheed. It becomes clear to Rasheed, however, that this girl will be the one to bear him a son. And so at the age of 60, Rasheed takes Laila as his second wife, bringing her into the household.

Laila bears two children, the first a girl, whom Rasheed, in time, comes to understand is not his own. The second child, a boy, dies not long after birth. By now the Taliban are in control, Rasheed becomes increasingly frenzied, and life's hardships are greater than before.

The novel's heart is the gradual bonding of Laila, the girl-mother, and Mariam, an older woman.  Hosseini writes poignantly, giving voice to the inner lives of his two female characters-a remarkable accomplishment for any male author. What follows is devastating. Yet Hosseini is unflinching in his desire to remind us not only of his characters' tragic lives, but also of their strength and capacity to sacrifice for those they love.

While some criticism has centered on the book's melodrama-characters too good or evil to be believable-the power of Hosseini's writing is his ability to illuminate and make readers care.  This is a book that brings immediacy to the story of people's lives in a remote yet vital part of the world.