Conor Byrne introduces us to this shocking, moving and powerful masterpiece…
Khaled Hosseini is best known as the author of the internationally bestselling The Kite Runner (2003). His second novel A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007), however, has been equally successful, becoming a number one New York Times bestseller for 15 weeks following its publication. Hosseini, as an Afghan-American, is well positioned to relate a harrowing story of betrayal, violence and love set in his native country, Afghanistan.
The novel spans a period of over fifty years, from the 1960s to 2003. It essentially tells the story of two Afghan women, Mariam and Laila, who are brought together in devastating circumstances. Mariam is a harami, an illegitimate child born to a poor villager and an extremely rich businessman who, living in the patriarchal society of Kabul, has three wives and numerous children. She eventually leaves her mother to find her father, who she believes loves her and wants to care for her, only to discover that she is, in fact, nothing to him. Tragically, her mother commits suicide as a result of Mariam’s loss, the first of several deaths which plague the events of the novel. At fifteen, the stricken Mariam is married to Rasheed, a man over thirty years older than her, bitter, troubled and cruel. Mariam’s failure to bear him a son earns her his hatred and contempt, and she is confined to her household, forbidden to leave without him, dressed in burqa; which further conveys her oppression and lack of freedom.
Laila, on the other hand, is the affluent daughter of a teacher and his fairly liberal wife, and excels academically. Her closest friend is Tariq, whom she spends most days playing with during her childhood, a friendship which eventually blossoms into love. But with the onset of political conflict in Afghanistan, violence and death engulfs Laila’s family. Her two brothers are killed, and Tariq and his family leave Kabul. Out of desperation, Laila and Tariq make love, and Laila falls pregnant. Ironically, given the scandalous nature of that act, both Laila’s parents are killed by a rocket before either of them discovers their daughter’s secret. Laila is subsequently taken in by Rasheed and Mariam, and upon learning of her pregnancy, agrees to marry Rasheed. When she gives birth to a daughter, who doesn’t resemble him in appearance, Rasheed becomes suspicious. An abusive man, who regularly beats Mariam and at one point forces her to eat pebbles, he begins physically harming Laila.
In a context of abuse and mistrust, hatred and death, Mariam and Laila become friends and confidants. The rise of the Taliban further oppresses the two women, and when Laila’s daughter is sent to an orphanage because of the family’s poverty, Laila is beaten by the Taliban on trying to reach her. The high point of the story, however, comes with Tariq’s reappearance – Rasheed had informed Laila that he was dead. In a bloody scene, Rasheed attempts to kill Laila, but Mariam rescues her and murders Rasheed instead. For her actions, Mariam is executed. Laila and Tariq leave for Pakistan with their daughter and Laila’s infant son.
The book is a moving tale, set in the harshness and cruelty of modern-day Afghanistan. It is a story of love and friendship, the story of the brutality inflicted on women in a patriarchal society. It fully deserves five stars.
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