Book Review — A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

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This evening, I finished Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. Khaled is an Afghan-American novelist and physician. This novel was written in 2007.

The book is a compelling but heartbreaking story of two women, both with distinct family background and about a generation apart, who were brought together under the same household through the tragic sweep of war. It is a story set between the period of the 1960s to 2000s in Afghanistan; a period during the invasion by the Soviet Union and the rise of the dreadful Taliban.

There is Mariam, born out of wedlock, who upon the death of her mentally unstable mother is betrayed by his father and married off at the age of fifteen to a man who abused her all her life. Then there is Laila, born a generation and into a comparatively privileged household, who found herself unconscious in Mariam’s home after a bomb blast had killed her parents. With no one left, she was forced to accept a marriage proposal from Rasheed, Mariam’s husband at the age of fourteen.

Khaleed interspersed this book with some brillant perspectives…

“Barefoot boys gave chase to cars and buses…Mariam stood at a street corner and watched the passersby, unable to understand how they could be so indifferent to the marvels around them.”

“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.”

Makes you understand that even the Afghan culture has its own superstitions…

“He told her of the superstitions people had about shoes: that putting them on a bed invited death into the family, that a quarrel would follow if one put on the left shoe first.”

Hosseini is a master storyteller. His characters feel like you know them. You have a sense that you feel what they are feeling and can think what they are thinking.

As an aside, the way he uses some words in his descriptions is amusing yet thoughtful. My favourite is the use of crane instead of stretch.

“Laila cranes her neck…”

#WordsAlert putter around | sprightly | retched

But it is a dark dark book. It is a story that will tear your heart into pieces and then when you are somewhat relieved there is light at the end of the tunnel will break your heart again.

A story of domestic abuse that matches anything I have read before. A husband forces small stones into the mouth of his wife over an unpleasant meal leaving her to “spit out pebbles, blood, and the fragments of two broken molars.”

A story of a country that has never really known lasting peace. A story of a country tossed to and fro from one invader to the other. Macedonians. Sassanians. Arabs. Mongols. Soviets. Taliban.

A story of the boundless ability of humans to love another…

“Tell her she is the noor of my eyes and the sultan of my heart…”

A story of the cruelty and horror of war undertaken by Islamic fundamentalists especially on women…

One of the women moved by maternal instinct to visit her daughter regularly in an orphanage without the escort of a man “was caught, questioned — two, three, even four times in a single day. Then the whips came down and the antennas sliced through the air, and she trudged home, bloodied…Soon Laila took to wearing extra layers, even in the heat, two, three sweaters beneath the burqa, for padding against the beatings.”

“…When he was done, he gave a final whack to the back of her neck and said, “I see you again, I’ll beat you until your mother’s milk leaks out of your bones.””

The last quote, the author remarked that the grisly if colorful words were used by a bodyguard of a government official when telling him a casual story a woman he has seen beated by a Taliban official in Kabul in 2003.

This book is a story of deep love laced with extreme circumstances and incredible cruelty.

That letter from Jalil to Mariam breaks the heart. I dare you to produce a more heart-wrenching letter from one human to another in the context that it was written.

In piercing together what could make Khaled write this kind of book, I found out that he had stood at street corners in Kabul beholding fully covered women
walking along, trailed by four, five, six, seven children. He kept wondering within him, who is that person inside? What has she seen? What has she endured? What makes her happy? What gives her sorrow? What are her hopes, her longings, her disappointments? He says the book is his attempt at imagining answers to those questions.

Like I told someone, until I know the state you are, I will not recommend this book to you. This book depicts stark brutality that men can inflict on women, as well as war’s random and chaotic violence. This book should be labelled R 18+.

I remember when I put this book up as my next book, some of my friends remarked that it is THE sad book. After reading, I say it is the most remorselessly depressing book I’ve read. If you are depressed and need something to push you over the cliff, then by all means pick up this book and get it done with.

But if you are of sound mind, you should pick this book. It teaches never to take for granted the good in this world. Never to take for granted the beauty you see all around you. Never to take for granted freedom, education or unexpected kindness and generosity! It teaches that compared to what others go through, there is a lot to be grateful for.

I am not surprised at the widespread critical acclaim that this book has had upon publication. Among several awards, it was number one New York Times bestseller for fifteen weeks following its release.

Gosh… Khaled can write!

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