A Story that Can Move Even the Hardest of Hearts

19/03/2010 21:56

Review of A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini (London: Bloomsbury, 2007)


Not having read Hosseini’s debut novel The Kite Runner, which topped The New York Times bestseller list for more than 120 weeks, I had no idea what to expect starting this book. I had only limited knowledge of the author. I had read that he was born in Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan. His family sought asylum in the United States after a Communist coup and consequent invasion of Soviet troops into their home country – a fate not dissimilar to that of many Slovaks who fled Czechoslovakia in or after 1968. What made me a bit doubtful (as a “highbrow” reader) was the fact that Khaled Hosseini was hailed as the most successful (translation: best-selling) author of 2008, leaving behind names like J. K. Rowling or John Grisham (not necessarily a bad thing, but not a guarantee of literary quality either).

Having read his second novel A Thousand Splendid Suns, I understood why his first one had pulled the heart strings of millions all over the world. Although Hosseini is not a flawless storyteller: his predilection for melodrama sometimes slips into sentimentality, and some of his characters are so one-dimensional that they remind you of cartoons rather than full blooded characters; he certainly has an instinct for a good story that can move even the hardest of hearts.

His novel A Thousand Splendid Suns tells the story of two women: Mariam and Leila, whose lives represent the plight of women in Afghanistan, a custom-led macho society where women are valued only for reproduction. Mariam is a harami, a child born out of wedlock, who lives alone with her embittered epileptic mother on the outskirts of Herat. As her unmarried mother behaves more like a bully than a loving mother, she lives for weekly visits from her ostensibly doting, but—as it later turns out—insincere father, the wealthy owner of Herat’s cinema. After her mother’s death, he marries off Mariam—only fifteen at that time—to an acquaintance from Kabul, an elderly shoe-maker Rasheed, who insists that she must follow a strict Islamic lifestyle, which involves wearing a burka, hiding upstairs when male visitors come, and being subservient to her husband. The initially considerate Rasheed, however, quickly turns into a coarse, abusive, and violent bully after he finds her unable to bear him the son he desperately longs for. Mariam sadly recalls the words of her late mother who warned her, “Like a compass needle that points north, a man's accusing finger always finds a woman.” Leila, by contrast, is the beautiful educated daughter of a Kabul intellectual, who becomes Rasheed’s second wife after her parents are killed in a rocket attack and she discovers she is expecting a baby with her childhood sweetheart Tariq, who allegedly died trying to flee the turbulent Afghanistan with his frail parents. She agrees to marry Rasheed only because she understands that she and her child will never survive alone on the streets of Kabul. Much to Mariam’s dislike, Leila is wooed and pampered by her husband, who is at least four times as old as her. His favour, however, lasts only until she gives birth to a daughter. Mariam and Leila, although coming from very different family backgrounds, thus both end up exposed to their husband’s contempt and verbal and physical assaults. And this is where the emotionally strongest part of the novel begins. We watch the two wives growing closer to each other in the face of the abuse from their shared husband, finding an inseparable friend and ally in each other. Their friendship—and the story itself—culminates in a genuinely heart-wrenching scene (which makes you forgive the author all the embarrassingly hokey moments that the novel abounds with), in which one of the women sacrifices herself to help and rescue the other.

Although all the misery you have become a silent witness to makes you wish for a happy ending, the one Hosseini presents you with is a way too clichéd and flimsy. The Taliban has fallen, and it gives new hope to Afghanistan and its children. Women are shedding burkas, playgrounds are returning to life, and orphanages are being rebuilt. The ending simply feels as though it was taken from a B-movie. It is not that I would not let the much-tried characters have a bit of happiness, but in the light of what has happened in Afghanistan since then, the ending is just hard to believe.

The ending is, however, not the only place where Hosseini resorts to clichés. In passages where he is expected to submerge himself in the inner lives of women and girls, he is not very convincing either. For instance, when Laila’s boyfriend gives her a kiss, she feels her “heart pounding in her throat … a fire burning in the pit of her belly.” Or “she had fallen for Tariq. Hopelessly and desperately.” Hosseini resorts to explaining laboriously where subtle hints would have done the job much more effectively. On the other hand, the male characters Hosseini breathes life into are portrayed rather simplistically: either they are utterly evil or ridiculously weak. I’m sure he would have been accused of men-hatred if he were a woman.

That said, I think Hosseini still has a long way to go to become a great writer. He has understood the power of emotion, and now he has to move beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. This is not to say that Hosseini’s novel is necessarily a waste of the reader’s time. Besides the great story it tells, it offers invaluable glimpses of daily life in Afghanistan and an important history lesson to all whose opinion of this remote and largely unknown country has been shaped, and inevitably distorted, by western media.

Lucia Otrísalová



Hosseini: A story that can move even the hardest of hearts

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