Tuesday, 5 October 2010

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

A Thousand Splendid Suns is not a happy story. It is a brilliant book however. Telling the story of two women living their lives through some of the most tumultuous times in Afghan history, it is sad, harrowing, depressing and ominous. But I loved it all the same.

Mariam is the illegitimate child of a wealthy Afghan and his housekeeper, who was forced to leave his service when her pregnancy was discovered. Having lived a very solitary life with mainly just her mother for company, and revelling in the weekly visits from her father, she leaves to live with her father, who she is sure will be overjoyed to receive her. However, this is not the case and at fifteen she is married off to a much older man and sent to live in Kabul. She gradually adjusts to her new life and eventually stars to enjoy it, but as her husband Rasheed, gets more and more impatient that she cannot produce a child his behaviour towards her becomes more and more violent and degrading. Eventually, a local girl, Laila, ends up staying with Rasheed and Mariam as her parents are killed in a rocket attack and Rasheed also takes an interest in her, also fifteen.

This book is really the story of these two women, and how Afghanistan has treated them over the course of their lives. Although they are characterised very well, both individually, and the turbulent development of their friendship, the tragic events that happened to them could have been that of many women in Afghanistan. It’s a bit of a portent when Laila’s father says early in the story ‘it’s a good time to be a woman n Afghanistan’. At the time he said this, it was. Education and career prospects for women were more available than ever before, yet as readers we know this is all about to change. And when the Taliban finally roll in, Mariam and Laila are in the forefront of our minds, as we already know that they are trapped with a man who believes the Taliban to be a good thing. In a way it is possible to read the interplay between Rasheed, Mariam and Laila as a microcosm of Afghanistan as a whole, male leaders oppressing women as mere possessions and baby making machines, and God help them if they don’t produce male heirs.

I leant a lot from this book. I was well aware of recent events n Afghanistan but I wasn’t aware of the violent history that had preceded it, and because this book encompasses a relatively long period of time it also shows how the fighting and wars preceding the Taliban’s emergence into power devastated the country, both physically and emotionally. I also think this book does a very good job of pointing out that the Taliban did not come to power with totally new ideas. The attitudes they based heir theocracy on, and enforced brutally, were already present in many area of Afghan society, and when the Taliban took power, by many people they were simply legitimising attitudes already felt by many Afghan men.

Despite all the moments of horror and degradation, especially for women, this book is tempered with stories of how individual people fight the theocracy, in small but very relevant ways. Female doctors breaking the law to operate without Burkha (nurses posted on watch) and orphanage staff trying to look after children with no resources and still taking in children in need.

However, this book is essentially about Mariam and Laila. Their plight can come to represent that of all Afghani women, but the story of their friendship and bond is central to this story. Although at first they hardly speak to each other, they eventually develop a bond that is as close to mother and daughter as either of them has ever known, as they both had emotionally distant relationships with their respective mothers. With women being the central theme of this novel, it comes as no surprise that one of is strongest elements is mother/daughter relationships, especially living in a country where being female was a distinct disadvantage. The juxtaposition of the emotionally deficient relationships of both Mariam and Laila with their mothers, and the love Laila shows her daughter is enlightening.

It might be obvious that I loved this book. It was so well written, and with both large and small themes juxtaposed, but neither made more important than the other. It was harrowing, and upsetting. But also informative, and overall about love, and how that is the most important thing in the world.