A Thousand Splendid Suns
© 2007 Khaled Hosseini
“There is only one, only one skill a woman like you and me needs in life, and they don’t teach it in school . . . Only one skill. And it’s this: tahamul. Endure . . . It’s our lot in life, Mariam. Women like us. We endure. It’s all we have.”
A Thousand Splendid Suns is the story of an unlikely household in Kabul, Afghanistan, one formed by tragedy as the nation veers from civil war to civil war. Mariam is the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Herat businessman, one who loves his daughter but who cannot find the courage to embrace her; Laila is a young war orphan, pining for the loss of all she knew and loved. We follow these two women, first met in rivalry, who form a familial bond, holding on to what joy they can as Afghanistan shifts from bloody chaos to ordered brutality under the rule of the Taliban. Although full of suffering, like The Kite Runner, Hosseini’s followup has a redemptive, beautiful ending.
The Kite Runner remains one of the more unforgettable novels I’ve yet read, and I suspect Suns will find its way into that category, as well. I hadn’t the first notion what the novel was about; I only knew its author, and I was immediately struck by the sad story of Mariam, pining for a father who could not bring himself to do right by her. That made it all the more surprising when we suddenly jumped into a different girl’s story, of a slowly-blossoming romance — until the Soviets left and the struggle for power in Afghanistan consumed Kabul. There, death and tragedy follow the other in circles, and ‘poor Mariam’ appears again — as an antagonist to another young soul we’ve grown to care for. And yet the story continues, and our two women grow and face mutual battles together, until at the end theirs is a friendship as memorable as Amir and Hassan. One can almost hear Hassan’s voice ringing here: “For you, a thousand times over!”
I suspect I would have embraced this story even were it not for my interest in Central Asia, in understanding places like Afghanistan which have a deathly attraction for global powers. Here we experience the Soviet invasion, the hopeful establishment of a republic followed by coup and war and suffering piled upon suffering — though Afghanistan had decades more to come after this book ends in the early 2000s, following the American invasion. Although the reader’s attention is mostly on the personal dramas, those are inextricably bound up with these political struggles: it is the fighting that claims Laila’s brothers, her parents, and all she knew — and sends her careening into the path of Mariam and Rasheed, the book’s villain who behaves in the opposite manner to his “rightly-guided” name. One wonders what hells were released on nonfictional Mariam and Lailas in the 2000s, as DC arrogantly set about trying to build a country. And yet despite all they suffered, the characters here inspire by their ability to persevere: even Mariam, who had known nothing but isolation and rejection all of her life, is able to find some sliver of joy — and meaning.