Khalid Hosseini's new novel, “A Thousand Splendid Suns” is his second, following the much-acclaimed first, “Kite Runner”. Having not had the opportunity yet to read his first novel make me perhaps a less biased reader of his second one. It is said that success is usually hard to repeat and that great novels are usually followed by mediocre ones. So, I'll let readers of both books make that determination.
I should also warn readers who are expecting a lengthy review, that this isn't going to be one! Rather, it will be skimpy like the themes in the book. So, I'll start with the niceties first:
Hosseini writes with a rare intensity. The story picks up rapid momentum from the very beginning and shows little signs of slowing down all the way till the end. In a way, the storyline hooks the reader early on and never lets go. As Hosseini develops the few main characters in the story, he constantly moves back and forth between them, keeping the reader focused so as not to lose track of the plot.
The book is fictional, though it is interlaced with historical events, with the timeline ranging from about 1975 to the American invasion a few years ago.
It is obvious that Hosseini, who left Afghanistan 30 years ago as a child, has the American and, to some extent, the general Western audience in mind based on his portrayal of his native country.
Having not read Kite Runner, I cannot say if he is repeating any of the themes, but in essence A Thousand Splendid Suns might as well have been written by Horowitz. Well, to be fair, it is not that bad. For pure fiction and enjoyment, the book does not disappoint, but the historical interplay or more accurately the supposed historical interplay based on American interpretation could have been picked out of a classic “Muslim stereotypes central”.
I don't know enough of Afghanistan to say how much of what Hosseini writes in his book reflects reality, but I can say that the themes are so familiarly stereotypical that it leaves you wondering about Hosseini's true objectives. Here is what I mean (a note on annotations: the asterisks point to what seemed as examples of stereotypes to me. I should also add my spoiler alert here if you intend to read the book… skip the details between the “%%” symbols and you'll be safe :) ):
%%The main character, Mariam is 15 when the novel begins. She is the illegitimate child of a wealthy Afghani, Jalil, via his house-maid. Jalil is in a polygamous relationship with three wives*. Because Mariam is illegitimate, Jalil builds a little shack for Mariam and her mother in an desolate area. This is where Mariam grows up, separated from the rest of civilized world. Probably the only positive Muslim image in the novel is depicted in this early part of the story, in the form of Mullah Faizullah, an elderly kind-hearted cleric, who visits Mariam regularly for lessons in Qurʾān.
When Mariam tries to visit her father, her mother commits suicide, so she ends up moving to Jalil's house. Soon his wives arrange Mariam's marriage to a widower from Kabul, who is basically an old, fat fart (in his forties)*. Mariam of course cannot say no to the marriage* and ends up leaving with this shoemaker from Kabul, Rasheed. Rasheed forces his wife to cover in the burqa* (consider that this section of the story is set in the 80s, well before the Taliban days), while he himself hides porn magazines in his drawers. Of course, Rasheed and Mariam's intimate life is limited to Rasheed's enjoyment only*.
When Mariam becomes pregnant, Rasheed only talks about the boy she is going to have*. When Mariam miscarries, Rasheed becomes abusive, both verbally and physically*.
The story then shifts to the other main character in the story, Laila, the beautiful daughter of ethnic Tajiks. Laila is only 14, when her parents are killed by an explosion and having fornicated with her childhood friend, Tariq, she is now pregnant. Laila is taken in by Rasheed and Mariam. But soon Rasheed, now in his 60s wants Laila for his second wife*. And Laila, desiring to “protect her honor” agrees to the marriage. Eventually Laila gives birth to her illegimate daughter, and as expected, Rasheed treats the girl badly simply because she is a girl (though he doesn't know that she is in fact not his daughter), and not the boy he wanted*.
The story then revolves around the interludes of the two wives, and their eventual friendship as victims of the rough world. When they try to escape, an Afghani man betrays them at the bus station and takes Laila's hard-saved money*. This makes Rasheed even more abusive. A few years later the Taliban come into town, and all the stereotypes of the Taliban are emphasized, as if Hosseini was given the charter to reinforce them. I don't doubt that many of the Taliban actions were true, but by not working in any of the redeeming features of the Taliban* (after all, they did bring security at the expense of liberty) highlights a very Western point of view (which is understandable considering that Hosseini himself was never there to know the facts, so he needs to stop pretending that he has the “Afghani interests at heart”). Mariam ends up killing Rasheed in trying to save Laila from being killed by him. Strangely Mariam decides not to run away with Laila, even though Hosseini doesn't justify why not. Except that he wanted her killed at the hands of Taliban, to leave that bitter feeling against them. So, Mariam is executed by the Taliban, who “cannot” accept her story because of her being a woman*. Thus, Mariam's woeful existence comes to end. Her whole life is a necklace of tragic events, pieced together one after another. And with her death, the reader is left with an enduring sense of sadness for Mariam, especially in the fact that Hosseini never did give her a break in her fictional life. Hosseini does do a good job in creating connections between readers and characters. As for Laila, she ends up traveling to Pakistan to marry her original love(r), eventually returning back to Kabul to work with an orphanage. %%
Back then to some underlying themes. An example in how Hosseini seems to be going overboard in pandering to his Western readers was in his repeated mention of the Bamyan Buddhist statues. While the characters of the story lead a pitiful existence with one tragic event after another, Hosseini somehow expects us to believe that Laila is remotely paying attention to the statues and bemoaning their destruction! I mean does Hosseini really think most Afghanis cared? The Western world did care because this part of the world seems to value art and ancient structures over human life, but most Afghanis, like ANY other normal people, probably weren't thinking about the statues. Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that most Afghanis supported the destruction of these statues, nor am I justifying their destruction, but rather my point is that the Afghanis had had MORE important things to worry about, like living from one day to the next!
While Hosseini lays out the horrids of the Taliban regime, he fails to fairly put in perspective the situation before and after the Taliban– the worse state of insecurity during the days preceding and proceeding the Taliban. It is one thing to not have a TV to watch during the Taliban regime, yet quite another when you don't feel safe from being killed or raped in the streets.
Hosseini's pandering to the Western audience and his reinforcement of many stereotypes about Muslims betrays the brave Afghani people, many of whom I reckon are everyday “normal” human beings. He also talks about the longing of Laila's father to perhaps come to America. There is nothing in the story that refers to the many civilians killed in American bombings. So, where is the balance? Also, the betrayal of Mariam and Laila by a “trustworthy-looking” Afghani for money does not represent the nature of Afghanis who will give up their lives for loyalty and honesty. I don't doubt that many Rasheeds and Jalils existed and still exist in Afghanistan… but there are an equivalent number of Joes and Mikes in the Western societies who beat up their wives and/or have mistresses. However, when you are as famous as Hosseini, then it becomes ever so important to portray a balance, so that people who have never read anything else about Muslims don't come off saying, “well Hosseini is a Muslim and he said so and so about other Muslims… so this must be the way typical Muslim society works.”
If I have read too much into the story, feel free to scold me. If Kite Runner was very different, do let me know.