Centred on the two struggling female protagonists – Mariam and Laila – their struggles, and their relationships, Khaled Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns” is depressing and frustrating, and moreover the perpetual violence and obstacles thrown in the way of Mariam and Laila also create a feeling of helplessness. Their largely miserable lives, especially their marriages to the abusive antagonist Rasheed, are set against and interwoven with the historical backdrop of the Soviet-Afghan War, the implications of a history of invasions, as well as the many civil wars and the emergence of the Taliban (who remain a threat in the country today).
Yet the troubles of the two women stem not just from these geopolitical and ultimately political and ethno-religious developments, but also from beliefs surrounding girls and women, such as marriage and education. And Hosseini fleshes out the tensions between tradition and modernity too. In this vein it is Mariam – a child born out of wedlock and shamed throughout her childhood before being arranged to marry a shoemaker thirty years her senior, and is therefore disadvantaged by virtue of her gender and socio-economic status – who is the most sympathetic character. She enjoys no reprieve as she ages, and even though she remains stoic in the face of never-ending adversity the reader is likely to only feel indignant.
“Nana [Mariam’s mother] said, ‘Learn this now and learn it well, my daughter: Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam’”.
Tying these character and plot developments in “A Thousand Splendid Suns” is a snappy narrative style characterised by short descriptive sentences and conversations. The story, for instance, moves quickly from the cities of Herat (where Mariam is born) to Kabul (where she is married to Rasheed, and where Laila grew up in) without compromising on the interactions between the characters or the unique traits of each setting. Reductive evaluations of Afghanistan, together with its history, its politics, and its culture, are eschewed, and its people – the good, the bad, and the ugly – are laid bare for an emotional read.