A Thousand Splendid Suns – our take

Yet another brilliant book by Khaled Hosseini!!! Like his debut (another brilliant) novel – The Kite Runner – Hosseini beautifully and effertlessly guides his readers through the complex relationship of his characters, sail through an intricate plot and multifaceted themes. The father-son and general male relationship that gripped us in Kite Runner is back, but this time with mother-daughter and relationship between women in A Thousand Splendid Suns.

The beauty of Housseini’s characterization in Splendid Suns, as compared with Kite Runner, is that each character is complex and is not portrayed “in black-and-white.” Here, we are officially disagreeing with the New York Times review. Even the “villainous villain”, Rasheed, shows his soft and humane side now and then. When Housseini shows us a glimpse of his villain’s soft side, it’s almost tempting to make excuses for Rasheed because outside forces such as culture and the political turmoil in Afghanistan seem to have a huge impact on individuals and the dynamics of family life. Then, we come across Tariq and Babi, Laila’s – the co-heroine – lover and father, respectively – who stand out as unique men with their liberal outlook amongst the chauvinistic yet spineless villains and co-villains (for lack of a better term :-D).

Note: if the norm of reviewing/studying a novel requires identifying one heroine and one villain, then we are prepared to take the risk of breaking the rule for we are convinced that Laila and Mariam are the co-heroines, Tariq and Babi are the heroes, Rasheed and Jalil are the co-villains and little Mariam, Laila’s daughter named after our co-heroine, is the heroine-in-the-making.

Like in his first novel, Housseini’s chronology of events, which corresponds with the chronology of the drastic political changes that took place in Afghanistan transform the family and social dynamics beyond recognition. Yet, he maintains the universal themes of love, endurance, relationship, betrayal, shame etc intact managing to show how these themes can have a life of their own outside of political and social spheres. Often, it’s these daily human interactions, struggles and victories which are forgotten when (my arch enemy) mainstream media just focus on the ills of a society as if people stop loving, feeling, aspiring, hoping, dreaming, treasuring memories, reminiscing good old days… living. These are the “thousand splendid suns”. The parts where people “escape” the brutally strict rules of the Taliban by watching illicit movies like Titanic, Laila and Tariq goofing off and flirting, Laila and Mariam’s tea ritual despite the mayhem at home are all indications of the fact that life somehow goes on. It goes on despite brutal regimes and abusive husbands.

Laila watches Mariam glue strands of yarn onto her doll’s head. In a few years, this little girl will be a woman who will make small demands on life, who will never burden others, who will never let on that she too has had sorrows, disappointments, dreams that have been ridiculed. A woman who will be like a rock in a riverbed, enduring without complaint, her grace not sullied but shaped by the turbulence that washes over her. Already Laila sees something behind Rasheed nor Taliban will be able to break. Something that, in the end, will be her undoing and Laila’s salvation. (page 355).

Unlike Kite Runner, the turning points for the main characters in Splendid Suns is subtler and gradual. Amir, the main character in Kite Runner makes the sharp turn around when he decides to return to Kabul (from the US) to right the wrongs he had done to Hassan, his servant’s son. In contrast, reading Laila and Mariam’s transformation is like watching them grow up.

Impressive balance, brave honesty
One of the factors that make this book so powerful is the balance that Hosseini maintains while developing intricate themes. While staying focused on the central theme of the plight of women in Afghanistan and male dominance, the author takes us readers on a detour to show us women maintaining the status quo. This is best shown through the internal conflicts of Jalil while he was torn between his obvious love for his illegitimate daughter, Mariam, and the subtle force of his wives to marry her off at a young age after the death of her mother. (Eddie – from Bosnia and I – from Ethiopia were surprised to find out that we share the same saying “The man is the head of the family, but the woman is the neck [that turns the head]“.) It is very easy to lose site of the role of women in female-oppressing cultures. Several studies show that, for example, in cultures where female genital mutilation is common place, it’s mostly women who perform the maiming. Similarly, Mammy – Laila’s mother – overtly favours Leila’s brothers both in life and in death making Laila feel like a second rate citizen in her home.

Mammy was soon asleep, leaving Laila with dueling emotions: re assured that Mammy meant to live on, stung that she was not the reason. She would never leave her mark on Mammy’s heart the way her brothers had, because Mammy’s heart was like a pallid beach where Laila’s footprints would forever wash away beneath the waves of sorrow that swelled and crashed, swelled and crashed. (page 130)

Another example is the dichotomy of the use of burqa. It’s obvious that Hosseini went through the experience of being covered up (he did, for real). The much contested Taliban-imposed burqa becomes the salvation for Leila providing her a much needed personal space when all eyes seem to watch her. She can cover her shame and hide behind her burqa. This is very brave and clever of Hosseini to dare cross into a contested territory without losing his balance.

Hosseini’s superb attention for detail makes reading much more interesting. He has the same sharp eyes for details (those which normally pass right above other men’s head) as Alexander McCall Smith, author of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. I often have to look at the picture of McCall Smith at the back of the book to ensure that it’s really a white male explaining something detailed through the eyes of a black woman.

Imagine where the world would be if our leaders and aid workers have such balanced view???

The verdict
Eight thumbs (out of ten) up for Splendid Suns and ten thumbs up for Kite Runner! Hold on – this was supposed to be a review of just one book. Oh well. Both are awesome books and we highly recommend them. We also look forward to the third novel – no pressure Mr. Hosseini.

Footnote

Kite Runner the movie is on the making. Details here.

Posted by Fikirte

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