Hosseini soars with searing portrait of Afghan women
After the unexpected success of his first novel, The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini decided to focus his second book on a part of Afghan society often obscured from public view—its women. "There are women characters in The Kite Runner, but I wouldn't describe any of them as major characters," he says. "So there was this entire aspect of Afghan society and Afghan life that I hadn't touched upon. It was a landscape that I felt was rich with possibilities for storytelling."
Hosseini, a superb storyteller, realizes those possibilities fully in A Thousand Splendid Suns, his textured, deeply affecting novel about the intersecting lives of two Afghan women. Mariam is the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Herat movie house owner. She grows up exiled with her mother to a hovel in the hills outside the city, visited occasionally by the father she adores. When her presence at the periphery of her father's life threatens family peace, she is forced into marriage with a shoemaker from Kabul. Life in Kabul goes from bad to worse under the Soviet occupation. Her husband brutalizes her and eventually takes in, then marries, a young, well-educated girl—Laila—who has been orphaned during the Afghan civil war. Most of A Thousand Splendid Suns depicts the extraordinary relationship that develops under grim circumstances between these two women.
"As a writer, the things that always move me are the intimate human stories, the links between the characters, their dreams, their disappointments, their crushing defeats and their atonements," Hosseini says during a call to his home in San Jose, California. Hosseini was an internist at a Bay Area Kaiser hospital before the phenomenal popularity of The Kite Runner allowed him to take an extended leave of absence. He and his wife have two young children. He briefly, politely, interrupts the call to kiss his son goodbye as he heads off to school. Hosseini appears remarkably unaffected by the hoopla over his first novel.
But later in the conversation, Hosseini admits the success of his first book, which has sold more than 4 million copies, cast a "looming shadow" over early attempts at composing the new novel. "Suddenly everybody was interested in what I was writing next," he says with a pleasant, rueful laugh. "You go through these crises of self-doubt. You wonder: Am I a hack? It took a little bit of work to ignore the noise outside my door."
In fact, for a while, Hosseini rented an office in a nondescript office building, a room with nothing on the walls to distract him that he now calls his "windowless bunker." He worried about finding the right voice for the book, writing through four drafts using different approaches and points of view. He "chastised" himself because he had "not only decided to write from a woman's standpoint, but had decided to write from the standpoints of two women. I had to not only think about what it would be like to be a woman, but I also had to think about what it would be like to be a different woman. As long as I was self-conscious about the fact that I was writing from a woman's voice, it kept coming across as very self-aware and contrived. But as I wrote and as I began to know these women, began to understand their motivations, their dreams, began to understand them as people, the issue vanished on its own. At first I was a ventriloquist and they were dummies speaking with my voice. But as I began to know them, the characters took over and I became a mouthpiece for them. That was a watershed moment for me."
The completed book has the same big heart displayed in The Kite Runner, but even Hosseini (despite his writerly doubts) believes the new story is more masterfully told. "I feel this is a more subtle and somewhat more restrained book," he says. "I think that I, as a writer, have learned to trust readers and allow them to make their own connections."
One sign of such mastery is the way Hosseini weaves recent history into the narrative. He says he struggled to restrain himself "from getting too much into the history and political turmoil" of those years. But he eventually found that the "intimate story of these characters" and the bigger story of what is going on in Afghanistan "twisted around each other like a DNA strand. It is really by necessity, because these two women happen to be living in the volatile period of recent Afghanistan history. There is no way I could have told the story of Laila and Mariam without telling the story of Afghanistan."
In addition to their concern for the plights of Hosseini's characters, readers will be carried willingly from page to page by the sensory and cultural details that enrich Hosseini's depiction of Afghan life in this era. Hosseini grew up in Kabul before immigrating to the United States as a youth. His family was originally from Herat, which he would visit for family gatherings. "I remember the city and how beautiful it was," he says. "I can speak Farsi in both the Herati and the Kabuli accent. This is part of my background." Breaking his rule of allowing only his wife to read and comment on drafts of his novels, he asked his father, a former Afghan diplomat, to read the final draft and serve as a sort historical and technical advisor. In 2003, a time of cautious optimism in Afghanistan, he visited Kabul. A Thousand Splendid Suns resonates with his remembered and recently witnessed details of Afghan life.
"The writer side of me," Hosseini says at the end of our conversation, "wants what every writer wants: that people respond to my characters, to feel their happiness and sorrow, and to be transported by them. Then there's the other side of me. I am from Afghanistan. And although it's not my intention to educate people about Afghanistan, I do hope that in some ways this novel gives people a window into Afghanistan, especially into the difficult existence of Afghan women over the last 30 years. Maybe this novel will give some identity to the nameless, faceless women in burqa walking down the street, so that a reader will now sense that these are real people who have dreams and hopes and disappointments. Just like everybody else."
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California. Copyright 2007 BookPage Reviews.
BookPage Reviews 2008 December
A Thousand Splendid Suns
After more than two years on the bestseller lists, Hosseini's internationally acclaimed novel is now available in paperback. In his masterful follow-up to The Kite Runner, he takes readers back to Afghanistan, presenting events from that troubled country's past—including the Soviet takeover and the rise of the Taliban—as they appear from the perspectives of two very different female characters. Mariam, the daughter of a cleaning woman and a businessman, was born out of wedlock. Married at the age of 15 to a man in his 40s, she experiences a loveless relationship. Laila, who lives with her accomplished, forward-thinking parents in Kabul, is favored by her father but spurned by her mother, who showers affection on her brothers. When Laila meets Tariq, a brave young man who was injured in an explosion, she falls in love for the first time. But the friction between the Communists and the mujahideen make day-to-day living in Kabul dangerous, and soon Tariq and his family move to Pakistan. After a horrifying series of events leads Laila to the home of Mariam and Rasheed, she must make a decision that will change her life forever. The two women develop a special relationship that could only arise in a country ruled by terror. Spanning 30 years of Afghanistan's tumultuous history, this melancholy, beautifully conceived book reinforces Hosseini's reputation as a first-class novelist. Copyright 2008 BookPage Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2007 March #1
This Afghan-American author follows his debut (The Kite Runner, 2003) with a fine risk-taking novel about two victimized but courageous Afghan women.Mariam is a bastard. Her mother was a housekeeper for a rich businessman in Herat, Afghanistan, until he impregnated and banished her. Mariam's childhood ended abruptly when her mother hanged herself. Her father then married off the 15-year-old to Rasheed, a 40ish shoemaker in Kabul, hundreds of miles away. Rasheed is a deeply conventional man who insists that Mariam wear a burqa, though many women are going uncovered (it's 1974). Mariam lives in fear of him, especially after numerous miscarriages. In 1987, the story switches to a neighbor, nine-year-old Laila, her playmate Tariq and her parents. It's the eighth year of Soviet occupation--bad for the nation, but good for women, who are granted unprecedented freedoms. Kabul's true suffering begins in 1992. The Soviets have gone, and rival warlords are tearing the city apart. Before he leaves for Pakistan, Tariq and Laila make love; soon after, her parents are killed by a rocket. The two storylines merge when Rasheed and Mariam shelter the solitary Laila. Rasheed has his own agenda; the 14-year-old will become his second wife, over Mariam's objections, and give him an heir, but to his disgust Laila has a daughter, Aziza; in time, he'll realize Tariq is the father. The heart of the novel is the gradual bonding between the girl-mother and the much older woman. Rasheed grows increasingly hostile, even frenzied, after an escape by the women is foiled. Relief comes when Laila gives birth to a boy, but it's short-lived. The Taliban are in control; women must stay home; Rasheed loses his business; they have no food; Aziza is sent to an orphanage. The dramatic final section includes a murder and an execution. Despite all the pain and heartbreak, the novel is never depressing; Hosseini barrels through each grim development unflinchingly, seeking illumination.Another artistic triumph, and surefire bestseller, for this fearless writer. Copyright Kirkus 2007 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Library Journal Reviews 2007 January #1
Hosseini sees whether he can top The Kite Runner's remarkable recordÃ„103 weeks on the New York Times best sellers listÃ„with this tale of two very different Afghan women over 30 years. With a national tour. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal Reviews 2007 March #2
Raised in poverty by her unwed epileptic mother and married off early by the rich, elegant father who has always kept her at arm's length, Mariam would seem to have little in common with well-educated and comfortably raised young Laila. Yet their lives intertwine dramatically in this affecting new novel from the author of The Kite Runner , who proves that one can write a successful follow-up after debuting with a phenomenal best seller. As Mariam settles in Kabul with her abusive cobbler husband, smart student Laila falls in love with friend Tariq. But she loses her brothers in the resistance to Soviet dominion and her parents in a bombing just as the family prepares to flee the awful violence. Simply to survive, she becomes the second wife of Mariam's husband and is bitterly resented by the older woman until they are able to form the bond that serves as the heart of this novel. Then the Taliban arrive. Hosseini deftly sketches the history of his native land in the late 20th century while also delivering a sensitive and utterly persuasive dual portrait. His writing is simple and unadorned, but his story is heartbreaking. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 1/07.]--Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal[Page 58]. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Afghan-American novelist Hosseini follows up his bestselling The Kite Runner with another searing epic of Afghanistan in turmoil. The story covers three decades of anti-Soviet jihad, civil war and Taliban tyranny through the lives of two women. Mariam is the scorned illegitimate daughter of a wealthy businessman, forced at age 15 into marrying the 40-year-old Rasheed, who grows increasingly brutal as she fails to produce a child. Eighteen later, Rasheed takes another wife, 14-year-old Laila, a smart and spirited girl whose only other options, after her parents are killed by rocket fire, are prostitution or starvation. Against a backdrop of unending war, Mariam and Laila become allies in an asymmetrical battle with Rasheed, whose violent misogyny--"There was no cursing, no screaming, no pleading, no surprised yelps, only the systematic business of beating and being beaten"--is endorsed by custom and law. Hosseini gives a forceful but nuanced portrait of a patriarchal despotism where women are agonizingly dependent on fathers, husbands and especially sons, the bearing of male children being their sole path to social status. His tale is a powerful, harrowing depiction of Afghanistan, but also a lyrical evocation of the lives and enduring hopes of its resilient characters. (May)[Page 52]. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.