A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. Riverhead: New York. May 2007. Hardcover. 384 pages. $25.95.www.us.penguingroup.com


Khaled Hosseini is obviously aware of the curious turn of history that made his novel The Kite Runner into a bestseller. In his new novel,A Thousand Splendid Suns , one character tells another, “Not that they give a damn in America, mind you. What do they care that Pashtuns and Hazaras and Tajiks and Uzbeks are killing each other? How many Americans can even tell one from the other?” This is pre-9/11 Afghanistan, but the writer has 20/20 hindsight.

Yet to dismiss The Kite Runneras an accident of geography would be to discount the prodigious talent of its storyteller. Khaled Hosseini is a marvelous storyteller, and he demonstrates it again in A Thousand Splendid Suns by weaving in the dramatic story of two women over decades of Afghan history.

That itself is no mean achievement. As Afghans moved from the rule of King Zahir Shah to the Soviets to the Northern Alliance to the Taliban, women receded from public life into the shadows of the burkha. But Hosseini is still able to track history through their lives, even when they are really hidden from public view.

“And when the rockets began to rain down on Kabul, people ran for cover. Mammy did too, literally. She changed into black again, went to her room, shut the curtains, and pulled the blanket over her head.” But there is no hiding from the rockets and the inexorable tug of history. And Hosseini’s characters must learn how to live through it all.

“It’s our lot in life, Mariam. Women like us. We endure. It’s all we have.” Mariam’s mother’s advice to her young daughter is less pessimistic than it is resigned. In A Thousand Splendid Suns the endurance of women is tested over and over again. Men may fight the battles over land and history and religion, but it’s the women who seem to bear the most livid scars.

But even among women, Mariam is especially disadvantaged. The bastard daughter of one of the wealthiest men in the town of Heart and his housekeeper, Mariam grows up on the outskirts of town with her bitter mother.

Still, Mariam clings to her dreams until everyone in her life cruelly betrays her and she finds herself trapped in a marriage to an older widower who has lost his young son and desperately wants another. Only when her story intersects with that of the much younger Laila, herself orphaned by Afghanistan’s deadly civil war, does Mariam find some measure of solace.

The story might seem cut from familiar cloth—the men make all the rules, and the women’s lot is to suffer under them. Mariam remembers her nana (grandmother) saying that each snowflake was a sigh heaved by an aggrieved woman somewhere in the world. If that is true, there is a veritable blizzard in A Thousand Splendid Suns , for the women have plenty to be aggrieved about from brutish husbands to loutish chauvinist Taliban morality police. “As if the meals cook themselves. Wallah o billah, never a moment’s rest!”

The archetype of the oppressed Third World woman is a much too familiar figure especially in the West. When the United States went to war in Afghanistan, it professed sudden concern for the plight of the women of that war-torn country. In his two protagonists, Mariam and Laila, Hosseini might find himself accused of delivering two burkha-wrapped objects of oppression for his western audiences to tut-tut over.

But that would be ignoring the fact that, under the burkha, the story pulses with life. Some might accuse Hosseini of occasionally crossing the line into melodrama, even overwriting, but Afghanistan’s turbulent history needs a storyteller with Hosseini’s passion. This is not a story to be told in the hushed nuances of contemporary New Yorker-style fiction—all delicate gestures and little action. Hosseini wears his larger-than-life emotions on his sleeve. “A man’s heart is a wretched, wretched thing, Mariam. It isn’t like a mother’s womb. It won’t bleed, it won’t stretch to make room for you.”

Where The Kite Runner looked at class and ethnicity in Afghan society, A Thousand Splendid Suns considers gender and maps the betrayal of women’s lives against a backdrop of 30 years of war. There is a heart-sinking feeling throughout the novel, for the reader knows that moments of happiness, like stolen kisses, will be short lived. A picnic at the famous Bamiyan Buddhas is only a prelude to their destruction. A joyful scene of the Soviets finally withdrawing from Afghanistan is soon to be followed by a rain of rockets. Yet even amidst the disaster and devastation, Hosseini stubbornly locates life. “Laila spots flowers potted in the empty shells of old Mujahideen rockets—Rocket Flowers, Kabulis calls them.”

Mariam and Laila are only two of the many Rocket Flowers managing to bloom in the debris of shattered lives. A Thousand Splendid Suns has plenty of tragedy but it is not bleak. In fact, it is often downright funny, cleverly weaving in the extraordinary circumstances of Afghan history into the most ordinary facts of everyday life. When Laila’s baby cries loudly, her harried husband mutters, “That thing is a warlord. Hekmatyar. I’m telling you, Laila’s given birth to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.”

Khaled Hosseini moved to the United States in 1980. But the book, which spans the 1970s to the American invasion after 9/11, really captures the sense of years of living dangerously. Laila and her young beau Tariq might be part of a sweet coming-of-age story anywhere in the world, except Tariq has only one leg. He lost the other to a land mine as a young boy. Hosseini’s tremendous empathy for his characters is the real blood pumping through the veins of this saga even when the plot follows familiar lines. As a reader, one knows that ultimately the much-abused Mariam will turn on her abuser. But Hosseini imbues the abusive Rasheed with a measure of humanity. Early on in their marriage, Rasheed buys Mariam a maroon shawl. It’s a short but tender scene that saves him from becoming a caricature of the boorish husband.

In the end, the relentless shelling of a country does terrible things to its citizens. Hosseini recounts how in the worst days of the bombings, the dogs of Kabul developed a taste for human flesh. The citizens of Kabul don’t fare much better. Laila’s mother disappears into a fog of depression after losing her beloved sons to the anti-Soviet resistance. Rasheed, increasingly powerless over his own destiny, vents his anger on his family. Mariam and Laila pay their own terrible price as well. Laila meets an old lover after ten years and wonders if he finds her pretty anymore, or “did she seem withered to him, reduced, pitiable, like a fearful shuffling old woman?” You realize with a start that she is actually still only in her twenties.

But even as lives fall apart, the city is gripped with Titanic fever, thanks to bootlegged videos from Pakistan. There is Titanic deodorant, Titanictoothpaste, even a Titanic beggar. “Everybody wants Jack,” Laila tells Mariam. “That’s what it is. Everyone wants Jack to rescue them from disaster.”

But in the end no Jack shows up. Laila and Mariam are the only ones who can save themselves. And as a reader you find yourself rooting for them, in the hopes that in saving their tattered lives, they might bring some measure of dignity to their shattered country as well.

Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a news-magazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New America Media.