Khaled Hosseini had a lot to prove last May.
His first novel, “The Kite Runner,” had achieved worldwide success and a coveted spot on the New York Times best-seller list in 2005. Four years later, Hosseini still had readers worldwide captivated and eager for his sophomore effort.
Talk about pressure. But Hosseini delivered with 2007’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” a story of two women in Afghanistan so emotional it could make even an iceberg cry.
The story begins with Mariam, the illegitimate daughter of a rich businessman who acknowledges her only a few times a month, when nobody’s looking. Her mother, a poor servant, is an overwhelming figure who may be bipolar and ends up killing herself after a fight with Mariam. The suicide sets the tone for a series of tragedies that Mariam and the rest of the characters will encounter (and, in true Hosseini fashion, overcome).
Mariam seeks shelter in her father’s home, but he provides it only until he finds a suitor to marry her off. The man, Rasheed, is a pudgy shoemaker many years Mariam’s senior, but for her father, he’ll do. Mariam reluctantly marries Rasheed and becomes trapped in a relationship marked by years of physical and mental abuse.
Hosseini’s characters, like those in “The Kite Runner,” deal with the calamities and fortunes of life against the backdrop of a chaotic Afghanistan. The novel tells the history of the long-troubled country, including the rise and fall — and rise again — of the Taliban. Events weave in and out of the characters’ lives, affecting them in various ways.
For example, the novel’s other main character, the teenage Laila, sees her life changed dramatically by a bomb attack that leaves her both homeless and an orphan. To make matters worse, Laila discovers she is pregnant, and her child’s father, her lifelong best friend, is believed to be dead.
This is where the gist of the story really begins, and when the two main characters, Mariam and Laila, come together. Laila marries Rasheed after recuperating from injuries sustained in the bombing. She knows this is the only way she’ll survive in Afghanistan, where women still have few rights, especially not single women carrying illegitimate children.
Mariam despises Laila at first and makes her life miserable because she feels threatened by the much younger, prettier girl. But a series of events turn the two into best friends, and the rest of the story unfolds through their shared hardship, luck and redemption.”
A Thousand Splendid Suns” sees the characters’ hope challenged every other chapter or so, and as a reader, you begin to wonder whether there can be a point amid all the tragedy. But just when you think there may be nothing left, Hosseini’s words, like Mariam and Laila themselves, remain strong, and keep you going.
— Astrid Galvan