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Book of the Week: A Thousand Splendid Suns

a_thousand_splendid_suns

An insightful and educating novel about the history of Afganistan. Told through the eyes of two women.

I have a lot to say about this novel, so I am starting to record my thoughts before finishing the book. 

The first glaringly obvious takeaway for me was; I know nothing about Afganistan. Having been born in the 1990’s and from the US, the most history I have of the country is their involvement in the conflict in the middle east. I had no idea Afganistan had a revolution in 1978, I had no idea their citizens had been living in a war-torn country for decades. I hope that more people my age would be willing to admit their ignorance and open themselves to learning. That is what this book has done for me. For being known as a more global generation we still know precious little about the great big world we live in. Granted this is a product of not being taught enough world history in school and media shaping the story however they wish. After learning so much from the book, I feel let down by my society. I should have known more, especially because my country was involved in a war with them. This book has spurred me to seek out more education.

My second lesson came in the form of language. There are terms used in the book I had a previous notion of in my head, but this notion did not line up with the use of the words. Media propaganda had shaped my definitions of “jihad” and “Taliban”. Leading me to assume they are militia groups, evil men who live in mountains. Although militia groups would perhaps describe what they transformed into, it’s not the whole story. “Jihad” is in fact, an Islamic term referring to the Muslim value of spreading the religion. It can also refer to a holy war fought in the name of Islam. I admit to having to look up the term because my idea of the definition was wrong. I first had an idea I might have the wrong idea was when the term “declaring jihad” was used in the novel, based on what I had thought of the word it didn’t make sense. Also, what I believed to be Taliban, originated as a political party during the civil war. Something that has changed in the many years since with many nuances I am still ignorant of, but I am trying to learn. The Taliban are Islamic fundamentalists, meaning they wish to return to the roots of the religion and eliminate  “corrupting” non-Islamic influences. Sounds fine, right until they try to push their ideas onto others and create violence. The point I’m trying to make is that I educated myself because of this book. I changed my definitions and decided to not rely on media for my world view.

Although the novel depicts tough subjects and the tragic history of a country, the author manages to do so with grace. I highly respect the care the author has taken to represent his country. There is an incredible balance to his storytelling, creating a novel with very little judgment depicted in the story. Several passages stand out to me as subtle ways the author showed both sides of somewhat misunderstood customs. Yet there are parts of the novel that understandably cast groups in a bad light. He does this through storytelling and is not heavy handed with his personal opinion. It does not feel as if he manipulated the history to make his personal view seen. More like he simply told the truth.

I would put a trigger warning on this novel. It is an incredible book and I have taken so much positivity from the pages and yet, when I take a step back there are some very harsh passages. The author has done an unbelievable job of making traumatic scenes strong enough for me to feel deeply for the characters while still writing them without much description. There is rape in the novel. The summary of the act reduced to only a few sentences. It was enough for me to feel a deep ache for the character but it didn’t make me put the book down. Similar instances for any gore, it is done as tastefully as possible. Having to be a part of the story to make it honest but used gently enough to make it bearable to the reader.

Enough with my commentary, how was the book??


The story has an ebb and flow, each time there is a ray of hope for a character it is met by tragedy. Creating heartbreaking moments where you realize, things will not get better, as you had hoped. It feels real. In a war riddled story, I feel it acceptable for the story line to be unrelenting. I am sure many people living through these events felt as if there would never be an end. The dread is palpable in certain parts of the story, while in others there is calm acceptance of violence simply being a standard in their lives. I feel this is also reflective of the human nature to adapt to our surroundings. I’m sure many people were afraid to leave their homes and once the war became the new standard they saw no reason to leave. They were desensitized to bombings and violence as they became a part of everyday life. This creates an interesting commentary on the impact of war, rarely considered by outsiders. When the ash falls there will be a country shell-shocked and riddled with loss. It brings to mind the lost generation of Syria. (NY Times)

The two main characters are dynamic and loveable. I found myself hoping the best for the women despite the story giving me no reason to believe anything would ever get better for them. The character development displayed over the course of the novel by both Mariam and Laila was well done. It was a gradual build but something that felt inevitable.

I loved the use of an intimate look into the lives of two women to display the history of a country. The choice to tackle such a strong story was risky but by using relatable and loveable characters I was drawn in, I truly cared. I saw the effects of everyday war twist a family. I got a glimpse into what it may be like to live through an arranged marriage, to be so trapped by social practices. I know I felt the girls fear and helplessness stronger because I am female. In that society, I would have been in similar situations. It was surprising to display such daunting tragedy. But perhaps a needed point of view for many that have never had to face anything similar. The novel was a great undertaking and well executed.

Pertaining to arranged marriages there is a certain passage that displays the balance Hosseini used throughout the novel. Rasheed (the husband) informs Mariam that she must be completely covered whenever leaving the house. To me, it seemed controlling and unfair, in fact, I believe it was meant to illicit that response. But then the author shows the other side as well, Mariam considers the demand and settles into being a bit flattered that he wants her all to himself, that she is too precious to share. There is a careful balance the author uses to try, to be honest and open about both sides of most arguments.

The book is complex, with many layers woven into the novel. Because there are several twists in the story I am adding a read more. It will include the ending of the novel. Spoilers ahead.

In my opinion, Mariam shows the most growth. When the novel begins she is a young girl enamored with her father. Her relationship reaches a turning point on her fifteenth birthday when her father refuses her, causing a huge shift from her previous naive child perspective. When her mother dies, Mariam is left with little choice but to accept a husband and move away. With a fragment of her naivety, she attempts to make the best of a bad situation. When she cannot bear a child for her husband things get exceptionally worse for her. She is subjected to years of abuse at her husband’s hands. Over this time, Mariam adopts a cowardice, a meek personality, to get through. She resigns herself to the unfortunate life to which she is bound. For a large portion of the book, we see this woman, broken and scared. When she finally opens herself to Laila and finds some light in her life, there is another shift in her. Mariam had been desperate to have her own children, resulting in her being fiercely protective of Laila’s. When the whole family is threatened in the climax of the novel she makes her final transformation. Meek Mariam kills her husband. In a choice between Laila or him, she chooses love. She breaks free from a life that has refused her happiness. I was thrilled that she had the strength to stand up for her family and yet, it was met with a deep dread. The novel will novel will not let the reader celebrate. Mariam reminds Laila that although their tormentor is dead, they cannot all be free.

After this climax there is plenty more story. I do not want to give everything away, so I will end it here. This book meant something. It has so much to offer if you give it a chance.

The story is bleak and gritty. I know that there are many places where people would want to abandon the story. The only advice I have to potential readers; don’t give up. Try your best to read it quickly, there will be a greater chance of getting through it if you don’t dwell too long with the book shut.

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