A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini’s second novel, will inevitably be compared to his first novel, The Kite Runner, a runaway success (which I read last summer) and an announcement of a tremendous new voice who could straddle the chasm between popular fiction and contemporary literature. I’ve been told that A Thousand Splendid Suns is even better than Kite Runner, but I’m not sure I could say either work was superior. What Suns offers that Kite Runner didn’t was a more assured and complex narrative, evidence of Hosseini’s development as a writer and storyteller.
Suns is, in Hosseini’s words, the story of the women of Afghanistan. It focuses primarily on two: Mariam, the illegitimate daughter of a Herat businessman and one of his servants, who ends up orphaned and married off to a man forty years her senior; and Laila, a young girl raised in relative prosperity in Kabul whose life is altered by the civil war after the Soviets are expelled. Their lives end up intertwined through independent tragedies, and one of them will ultimately have to make the ultimate sacrifice to save the other.
The two women face hardship after hardship, both finding themselves victims of circumstance and of the men in the increasingly patriarchal world of Afghanistan as it moves from rule by Communists to warlords to the Taleban. Both of their lives end up dominated by Rasheed, Mariam’s husband, an older man who abuses both women, forcing them into an uncertain and eventually fulfilling partnership.
Hosseini makes it clear that he believes that Afghanistan can never rebuild without contributions from and involvement of its women; the book’s conclusion, more positive than that of Kite Runner in spite of all of the tragedies that have preceded it, punctuates this argument by tying several areas of rebuilding to the involvement of women. He also emphasizes the importance of living and loving in the moment; in a world where the future is so uncertain, allowing short-term anger and resentment to trump ties of blood and love is more than foolish, but can lead to a life of regret. Neither theme is all that deep or complex, but the stories he weaves around them are. Hosseini also continues to offer references or nods to works of classic literature, from the plot point borrowed from Tale of Two Cities to a soft allusion to the lovers’ separation in Jane Eyre, and I assume those are complemented by references to poetry and narratives from the Afghan literary tradition that are unknown to most Western readers.
Next up: I’m already halfway through a nonfiction book, Organic, Inc., a history of the natural-foods movement that will, at the very least, have me buying organic strawberries from now on.