I don’t like to preach. But if there was ever an important time to read this book, that time is now.
I finished The Kite Runner a week before the withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan in August. We all know what happened next: in a matter of hours the tyrranical Taliban had seized control of the entire country and things started looking very dark indeed.
I hadn’t been purposefully reading The Kite Runner at that time. The impending withdrawal of US and UK troops hadn’t seemed to have gathered too much fanfare on the front page. A news story that is devastating even if you know nothing about the country and its people kept me awake at night. The emotional impact felt magnified.
I knew that A Thousand Splendid Suns was not going to be light bedtime reading. Charting three decades of tumultuous Afghan history, the story begins with Mariam, a ‘harami’ – born to an unwed mother, the housemaid of her wealthy father. She grows up with the understanding that as women, our burden is to ‘endure all that falls upon us’ – something she comes to know all too well when she is married off to a middle-aged widower at 15.
Laila is born in the early 90s to a mild-mannered father and an emotionally unstable mother, who has never recovered from her two beloved sons leaving to fight the jihadi cause. When fighting between rival mujahedeen factions in Kabul becomes too much – rockets claiming lives and limbs on a daily basis – the family decide to flee for Pakistan. But they won’t make it past the gates of the city.
‘…For a moment, standing there in the sunlight, it was as though those years had never happened. Her parents’ deaths, her marriage to Rasheed, the killings, the rockets, the Taliban, the beatings, the hunger, even her children, all of it seemed like a dream, a bizarre detour, a mere interlude between that last afternoon together and this moment.’
The power of Hosseini’s writing is in its beauty and simplicity, in his ability to build a rich tapestry of a life and of a moment in history. The story is so enriched – as with The Kite Runner – with the details about Afghani life, from the Titanic craze that gripped the nation in the late 90s (you could even buy a Titanic burqa), to how the family would bury the TV, wrapped in tarpaulin, in the back garden and dig it up again when it was safer to do so. All of these details exist alongside what is for the most part a harrowing, gut-punch of a novel.
There are some contrivances in the plot that felt a little clichéd – young lovers’ first ever night of passion results in a pregnancy, an escape plan is fatalistically foiled – but the novel is less about actions that propel the plot and more about the rich interior lives of the two female protagonists, whose characters grow into their own as the story progresses. Despite innumerable hardships – poverty, violence, persecution – these are women with rich emotional lives, who find strength in each other and in never failing to let go of the small glimmer of hope that things will change for the better.
‘The years had not been kind to Mariam. But perhaps, she thought, there were kinder years waiting still.’
What hit particularly hard was a conversation that takes place shortly after 9/11 when the country is invaded. The Taliban are ousted, but there’s a long way to go until peace and prosperity. ‘Maybe there will be hope at the other end of this war,’ one of the characters says to another, ‘maybe for the first time in a long time…’ Hosseini wasn’t to know, writing this in the first half of the 2000s, what would happen 15 years later – that perhaps for some, hope has never felt further away.
“I’m sorry,” Laila says, marveling at how every Afghan story is marked by death and loss and unimaginable grief. And yet, she sees, people find a way to survive, to go on.