Some books come along and move through your life, ones you can relate to, or can simply enjoy. In the case of A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, it didn't move through my life, it moved inside my heart and hasn't left me. Although I know many people are much more familiar with Hosseini's previous work The Kite Runner (which I also really loved), I actually think that this second novel reached me and has left a permanent mark. Before I get sidetracked though...
Synopsis: Set in modern-day Afghanistan, we are introduced into the lives of two indomitable women, Mariam and Laila. Mariam was the daughter of a single woman who had Mariam with a married, wealthy theater owner in town. Her father, who she always felt really loved her, was embarrassed by her "bastard" status, failed to claim her as his daughter and married her to, in my estimation, the highest bidder.
Laila comes into the picture down the road, the product of a loving home, but with a mother who has a debilitating case of depression over the loss of her two oldest sons. Laila is left to spend her days with her father and best friend Tariq, both of whom she loves. After the Taliban rise in power, Tariq's parents beg him to take them out of Afghanistan to escape, but he has grown to love and care about Laila. He is forced to leave her behind, after which a series of horrible tragedies leave Laila completely alone and abandoned in a city being overrun and constantly bombed by rival neighborhoods and factions. It is at this point that Laila and Mariam's lives intersect to bring about the events that unfold in not just the political upheaval of Afghanistan, but also to demonstrate the everyday lives of women of that country.
Review: To say that I was moved and transformed by this novel is to put it mildly. As a woman, I obviously see the domestic lives that other women live to be fascinating. In this case, the lives of Mariam and Laila horrified me. I found the emotional distance of the men in the story to be disturbing, hypocritical, and saddening. Cultural or not, the Dr. Jekyl & Mr. Hyde created by a culture that both needs yet denigrates women is troubling. Mariam and Laila are strong women, but when faced with a complete dependence on the men in their lives for their existence, even the strongest can push aside their own needs and desires to keep the peace and to simply survive.
In many sections of the book, I found my stomach in knots over the misunderstandings and mistreatments of its characters. I tried desperately to understand why a husband would beat his wife over poorly cooked rice, shoving rocks into her mouth, and forcing her to crunch down on them to make a point. I tried to comprehend a father ignoring his daughter's presence, allowing her to sleep outside in a yard all night, rather than acknowledging her existence. I tried to understand a system of government that would monthly, weekly, and even daily enter a person's home to take away goods and possessions that came from the "West." In general, I tried to be open to the culture and story being told. In the end though, as a human being and woman, my emotions were wrung to their ultimate level and I found myself crying at times, and even boiling with rage at others. More than anything, I wanted justice for the people of Afghanistan. I wanted Mariam and Laila to find happiness and PEACE. I wanted to see some sort of tied up conclusion that could pull together the loose ends of my agony over all I'd read. Thankfully, Hosseini was able to conclude the story in a believable way that didn't dishonor the characters nor merely gloss over the trials that all had been through. This is an amazing story, that is not easy to read, but well worth every second.
For more information: A Thousand Splendid Suns.
What books have you found transforming? What books could you not shake after reading them?