We read A Thousand Splendid Suns in two days while on a mini vacation. We had anticipated a grim story, and our expectations were fulfilled. But we stayed glued to the book, in part because of Hosseini’s gripping story telling and in part because, judging from the conclusion of The Kite Runner, we anticipated a glimmer of light at some point. It finally dawned, but it was a long time coming.
Due to the length of our review, we thought it best to avoid overtaxing our readers and discuss Hosseini’s latest release in two separate posts. This post is concerned primarily with the content and story of A Thousand Splendid Suns, while the next one will address stylistic matters. (Warning: plot revelations ahead.)
Tragedy aside, B says he found Kite Runner more compelling than Suns because the former was principally about an individual dealing with his own personal failures, while the central character in Suns suffers primarily because of the failures and cruelty of others. Mariam’s faults are few and relatively minor (i.e. her initial resentment toward Laila, unwillingness to receive her father when he comes to see her in Kabul); given her lot in life, they could even be excused. B suggests that Amir is more appealing as a protagonist because it easier for him, at least (and for me) to relate to a sinner in need of redemption than to a victim in need of deliverance.
I did not find Suns quite as aesthetically satisfying as Kite Runner. Suns, to a greater extent than Kite Runner, seems to have been written with a message in mind. Not that we object to literature with a message or have any fault to find with this one. But Hosseini’s first novel seemed to be written more for the sake of story and to possess more literary and narrative complexity. Certain plot developments toward the end of Kite Runner stretched credulity; Suns, by contrast, seems more realistic in some respects, but not quite as artful.
The Persian legend of Rustam and Sohrab provides a sort a literary backdrop for Kite Runner (Click here to see our Kite Runner review). The traditional story of Layla and Majnun functions similarly in Suns. But the allusions to the legend in the first novel seemed greater both in number and relevance than those to Layla and Majnun in Suns. A little Internet research revealed that this originally Arabic story was set down in Persian verse by the poet Nizami in the 12th century. Several variations of the narrative exist, but the essential and relevant elements are that young Layla and Majnun share a forbidden love. Layla’s father promises her to another man, and Majnun is driven to insanity by his passion. He ends his days in the wilderness, composing love poetry. In Suns, Laila and Tariq are not forbidden lovers, but their relationship goes beyond the boundaries set by their society. Laila is forced by circumstances to marry another man, and Tariq spends years in jail, like Majnun in the wilderness, writing “volumes.” As far as I can tell, the parallels end there.
The plot reminded me equally of the Biblical story of Ruth and Naomi.1 In both the Biblical book of Ruth and in Suns the central theme is the loyalty and sacrificial love between two women—one older and one younger—while the romantic love story is secondary. Miriam is not Laila’s mother-in-law, but she is old enough to be Laila’s mother, and the two are joined—however unhappily—by a marriage relationship. It is Laila who, after accepting in desperation the proposal of Mariam’s husband to become his second wife, first defends Mariam and makes overtures of friendship. In the end, it is Mariam who saves Laila’s life and enacts the ultimate expression of love. Love is perhaps the central thematic element in Suns—romantic love, parental love, friendship. Indeed, Mariam’s final reflections on love—both giving and receiving it—are all that prevent her her death from being unbearably tragic.
B observes that he was not convinced by the narrative that Mariam had to die. He feels it unlikely that, in the midst of ongoing battles, the Taliban would have discovered Rasheed’s body (supposing the women had buried it in the hole in the yard), identified the Mariam and Laila as the perpetrators, and taken the time to hunt them down—in a neighboring country, no less.
With regard to credibility in general, we would like to know how realistic Suns is. As an Afghan and a US envoy to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, it seems likely that Hosseini’s works would be representative of things he has heard and witnessed. But we wonder if Suns is like the 1991 movie “Not Without My Daughter.” An Iranian friend of ours once observed that, while all the incidents depicted in the film probably have happened somewhere to someone in Iran, they are not representative of Iranians as a whole, a fact unacknowledged by the movie. Do many Afghan women experience the unremitting domestic brutality depicted here? We would certainly hope they do not, though we are also reluctant to accuse the author of sensationalism. We understand that wartime circumstances are hardly conducive to normalcy. Perhaps part of Hosseini’s message is that the violence and upheaval Afghanistan has experienced over the past thirty years (and before) create an environment ripe for social dysfunction.
Ultimately, Hosseini’s two novels constitute different reading experiences. Read Kite Runner for a satisfying story and Suns for a disturbing glimpse of at least one sector of Afghan society in recent history. In the next post we will discuss some of the elements that make Hosseini’s works such engaging reading, in spite of the grim subject matter.
1 Naomi is a Hebrew who has been living in the country of Moab, when her husband and two married sons die. She prepares to return to her people and urges her Moabite daughters-in-law to return to theirs. Ruth, however, responds with the pledge now frequently associated with wedding vows: “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me” (Ruth 1:16-17 NIV). Upon returning to Israel, Ruth is befriended by a land-owning man named Boaz, who admires her devotion to her mother-in-law. Eventually they marry and have a son (the grandfather of King David), and Naomi’s friends say to her: “Praise the Lord, who has now provided a redeemer for your family! May this child be famous in Israel. May he restore your youth and care for you in your old age. For he is the son of your daughter-in-law who loves you and has been better to you than seven sons!” (Ruth 4:14-15 NLT).