A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (the author of The Kite Runner) is popular right now for good reasons. Again, Hosseini explores life in Afghanistan, but with this novel, there’s no escape to the United States. Three decades of war—Soviet rule, an anti-Soviet jihad, a civil war and then the takeover of the Taliban—bring the country to ruin and victimize many citizens, especially women. A Thousand Splendid Suns is largely the story of two of those women, Mariam and Laila.
Mariam is the daughter if a wealthy business man who has three wives. Unfortunately, her own mother was just a maid in the household, and Mariam is often reminded that she is illegitimate. Any dreams she might have for her life and future are crushed at fifteen when her father, as a way of removing the embarrassment that Mariam is to him, marries her off to a much older man, Rasheed, who brutally abuses her. Her dreams of being a mother are thwarted as she has miscarriage after miscarriage. Her inability to provide Rasheed with a son drives him to hate her.
In youth, Laila lives with her liberal, educated parents next door to Rasheed and Mariam. When a stray bomb leaves Laila an orphan at fourteen, she has no choice but to become Rasheed’s second wife, angering Mariam, who has spent eighteen dutiful years with Rasheed. However, as Rasheed is simply abusive by nature, he tires of the beautiful Laila. The women become allied against him and dream of escape.
Most Colony students will love this book. I think too much like an editor to give it the praise for perfection that I see in reviews. In The Kite Runner, Hosseini’s main character, a writer, has a professor who tells him to cut clichés. When I read that, I laughed thinking this must have been based on Hosseini own experience since his clichés sometimes irritate the reader. His plots can be predictable as well, as with unanticipated pregnancies and dire consequences. However, these faults are small in comparison to the impact his work has on the American reader. Students will be stunned at the description of life in a war zone and of the Taliban’s use of punishment (cutting off hands and stoning to death at half-time during soccer games are a few examples.) The following are examples from A Thousand Splendid Suns of new laws imposed by the Taliban when it takes over Afghanistan:
Singing is forbidden.
Dancing is forbidden.
Writing books, watching films, and painting pictures
Attention women: You will stay inside your homes at all times. . . . If you are caught alone on the street, you will be beaten and sent home.
You will not, under any circumstance, show your face.
You will cover with burqa when outside. If you do not, you will be severely beaten.
Cosmetics are forbidden.
Jewelry is forbidden.
You will not wear charming clothes.
You will not speak unless spoken to.
You will not make eye contact with men.
You will not laugh in public. If you do, you will be beaten.
You will not paint your nails. If you do, you will lose a finger.
Girls are forbidden from attending school. All schools for girls will be closed immediately.
Women are forbidden from working.
If you are found guilty of adultery, you will be stoned to death.
Having some idea of what life is like in other parts of the world is one reason teachers ask you to read “multicultural” books. We readers may not remember the names of all the ethnic groups in Afghanistan, but we come to understand that there is tension between them and that they see themselves as separate peoples. We learn how truly misogynist a society can be.