Hello Fledglings, Kate here!
After reading The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini around 2 years ago, I knew I had to read the sequel, A Thousand Splendid Suns. It was heartbreaking to read the harrowing story of the brothers Amir and Hassan in Hosseini’s first novel and I was hoping the ‘mother-daughter’ equivalent would be just as powerful. Hosseini definitely did not disappoint and again produced a narrative that broke me in so many ways, but I think most importantly, tried to educate me in such a complicated and contradicting situation.
I remember reading The Kite Runner and finding the portrayal of women, or lack of it, troubling. I understood Hosseini’s reasons for this depiction, but at the same time longed to hear the female perspective of such events. Here, Hosseini delivered in buckets. What I like about Hosseini’s writing style is that it is always clear. As a Westerner, I have limited knowledge of Afghani history or politics, and although not overly detailed, his descriptions do a good job of educating the reader in the nuances of Afghanistan’s history. The Middle East and Afghanistan is often described in very clear cut terms and this doesn’t do justice to such a rich culture and the individuals that live there. I believe Hosseini’s explorations of these topics couldn’t be more necessary in the climate in which we live in today.
The book is laid out in fours sections. First we are introduced to Mariam, the illegitimate child of Jalil, a cinema owner in Herat who has three wives and nine legitimate children. He is a wealthy man and cannot afford to bring ‘shame’ onto his family or upset his wives, therefore must keep his ex servant/lover and their child away. We hear of Mariam’s childhood, where she is raised in a small hut with her mother, only visited by her father every Thursday. Finally, on her 15th birthday, she begs her father to take her to the cinema to see Pinocchio. When he doesn’t, she makes her own way to her fathers house where he refuses to see her, and lets her sleep on the streets all night waiting for him. To make matters even more devastating, when Mariam returns she finds her mother has committed suicide, thinking Mariam had abandoned her. Mariam is quickly sold off to a much older man and widow, Rasheed. We follow the beginning of Mariam’s life in Kabul with Rasheed, where she now is forced to wear a Burka and suffers many painful miscarriages. The marriage slowly gets more and more abusive.
The second section describes Laila’s childhood and her young romance with Tariq who only has one leg. In the backdrop, Hosseini introduces us to the political instability of Afghanistan from the Soviet occupation and the Mujaheddin. Before Tariq’s family leaves, Laila and him make love. When Laila’s family finally prepare to leave Kabul, her parents are blown up as a rocket hits their home. Desperate and alone, Laila agrees to marry Rasheed.
The third section describes Mariam and Laila’s lives as the wives of Rasheed, from Laila discovering her pregnancy to Tariq’s apparent death. We see Mariam and Laila bonding, eventually becoming best friends, sisters, and parents to the children. It is filled with heartbreaking episodes of bravery, forgiveness and pure desperation.
The final section follows Laila as she and Tariq try to re-build their lives. Although they’re safe, it’s not the end of their journey.
I read this book over the summer, whilst sat on a Greek beach enjoying the sun. The contrast between my life and the life Hosseini portrayed for Mariam and Laila was not lost on me. Mariam’s life was agonizing from the outset. Just when I thought it could not have gotten any worse, it always did, right until the very end. From her father, Jalil’s, rejection to her mother’s suicide, then to being married to Rasheed and suffering under a miserable marriage plagued with miscarriages.
I was almost relieved for the reprieve when the narrative turned to Laila and her more liberal upbringing. Although not totally happy, I felt Laila’s childhood always held tremendous amounts of hope for her right until her parents death. From that point on, where Mariam and her paths crossed I honestly thought they were doomed.
When people, mainly westerners, talk about the destruction of the Taliban, you rarely hear them talk about the people that lived under their regime, but instead how the western world was effected by them. This is why Mariam and Laila’s struggle to keep their children (and I felt they were as much Mariam’s as they were Laila’s) alive was utterly harrowing! Because although Mariam and Laila are not real people, clearly, they are based on the very real experiences for a lot of women left in Kabul during the Taliban’s reign. I think Natasha Walter, writing for The Guardian, describes it perfectly. She explains that when reading the book, she found herself thinking the excessive whippings and beatings the women had to endure was slightly melodramatic. However, she reminded herself of women from Kabul she herself had spoken to, who’s lives really were as ‘melodramatic’ as Hosseini describes Mariam and Laila’s.
My favourite part of the whole book was definitely Mariam and Laila’s friendship and sisterhood. With the age difference, Hosseini definitely created an unconventional ‘mother- daughter’ narrative that kept me going, as it did the characters, to the end of the book. This made the ending even more heartbreaking. When Mariam’s sacrifice was described as “a legitimate end to a life of illegitimate beginnings”, I literally balled my eyes out, my tears dripping into the Greek sand. I didn’t care that people were staring, or if the novel was slightly sentimental – Hosseini did his job.
By the ending of the novel I was emotionally exhausted and it was nice to read about Tariq and Laila slowly building a life together in Pakistan. However, following Hosseini’s favourite theme ‘redemption’, he never would have been happy if the family didn’t return to Afghanistan. I understand why Hosseini does this but after all the troubles the characters went through I would happily have settled for the easier option. Once again Hosseini pulls at the worn strings of your heart when Laila revisits Mariam’s childhood home and you visit the spot where the heartbreak started. Jalil’s letter shows how preventable some of the trauma could have been, but Laila’s pregnancy gives the reader hope for the redemption of everyone involved – and also made me cry for about the 30th time.
Overall, I believe Hosseini created a powerful and moving narrative that gave me tremendous insight into another world. It will stick with me for a long time.
Love Kate xxx