The World Party Reading Challenge country for October was Afghanistan. I chose to read A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.
About the Book:
A Thousand Splendid Suns spans thirty years of Afghan history, from the 1970s to 2003, and focuses on the lives of several Afghan women. It’s tough to say more about the novel’s plot without at least minor spoilers, so I’d suggest you skip this section if you like your reviews spoiler-free!
The novel opens with Mariam, a girl living in a hut with her mother outside the city of Herat. Her father is a wealthy businessman with three wives, but since Mariam’s mother is not one of them, Mariam is a source of shame for her father. When her mother dies unexpectedly, Mariam finds herself in her father’s care. He quickly marries her off to Rasheed, an acquaintance who is much older than Mariam and lives hundreds of miles away in Kabul. As Afghanistan’s turbulent political climate leads from one war to the next, Mariam struggles to please her demanding husband and adjust to life in Kabul.
Then Rasheed takes a much younger second wife, a decision to which Mariam is vehemently opposed. But as life in Rasheed’s household becomes unbearable, the women form a friendship and an alliance. A Thousand Splendid Suns moves between Rasheed’s two wives, narrating their daily lives as the battles rage in their country and in their home.
I read Hosseini’s first novel, The Kite Runner, a few years ago and had this to say:
“I loved the first half of the book. I loved that it held my interest without big events happening every few pages. I loved that it focused on the ordinary life of the characters.
“I did not love the second half of the book. I thought it got too fast, to the point that it no longer became believable to me. The careful development that I loved about the first half seemed to have been tossed out the window in favor of a high speed play-by-play of extreme events.
I stayed up until 4 in the morning to finish it, but more because I had to get it done. The emotional reactions I’d had to the characters in the first half were long gone, and I was essentially reading because I was curious how the book would end.”
Though A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Kite Runner are completely different novels, I find my feelings toward them were much the same. I wouldn’t say I loved the beginning of A Thousand Splendid Suns, but I did like the first half of both books much better than the second. Though the pacing felt more even in A Thousand Splendid Suns, the sensationalism was the same in both books, and by the end I found myself emotionally dulled to the constant onslaught of horrors. I finished A Thousand Splendid Suns in the middle of the day instead of at 4am, but I read with that same sense of “must finish this book” that The Kite Runner had inspired.
There really wasn’t an aspect of A Thousand Splendid Suns I loved. The writing was mediocre. Definitely readable, but far from extraordinary. The minor characters–the ones who lived more than a few chapters –were drawn well enough. The three main characters held my interest. I deeply hated Rasheed from the start, as I’m sure most people did. I liked his wives, who were initially very real and warm, though I eventually lost my connection to them amidst the rapid succession of escalating events.
I didn’t agree with the direction Hosseini went with the last quarter of the book. I didn’t like the ending, but I also didn’t feel it fit with the story and characters. There are some authors I can trust to take a story where it needs to go and others I can’t. Hosseini, it seems, is firmly in the second category, as he is currently 0 for 2 with me!
In summary: as a novel, I felt A Thousand Splendid Suns was unremarkable. Does that mean I’m sorry I read it? Absolutely not. Here’s why.
First, Afghanistan’s history and politics are firmly embedded in A Thousand Splendid Suns. The characters discuss regime changes over dinner, lie awake at night listening to gunfire, and alter every aspect their lives as each new set of laws is introduced. They live through those unimaginably turbulent years and provide a window into what those years might have been like. It’s always hard for me to judge accuracy in fiction, but dates and political leaders are easy to validate.
Second, the appalled disbelief with which I read about the women’s daily lives–how their husband treated them, how their rights were nonexistent–prompted me to look elsewhere for more information. In the way that one book on a particular subject can kindle the search for more, I am hoping to find something else about–or even better, by–Afghan women. What I have found so far is the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. Founded by novelist Masha Hamilton, the AWWP helps Afghan women share their stories in voices of their own. Many women write in secret, and their stories are kept free of identifying features. I’ve spent several hours reading through the site’s content already.
So, did I like A Thousand Splendid Suns in and of itself? Not particularly. But the byproducts of reading it will stay with me for a long time.
If you’ve read A Thousand Splendid Suns, what were your thoughts? Have you ever read a book you didn’t like all that much, but that sparked an interest in something unexpected?