The title ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ evokes a sense of beauty and splendour that is in sharp contrast to the darkness, decadence and despair found in much of Khalid Hosseini’s second book.

I had had the book for some time, but didn’t pick it up until I could give enough attention and time to this tragic, yet touching tale. I tend to become involved with books and movies, getting lost in the tale and characters, soaking in the atmosphere and emotions, and the good ones remain with me for long.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is not an easy book to read – both the facts linked to the history of its setting and the fictional lives of its characters are thought-provoking, terrifying and troubling.

Khaled Hosseini

What the country Afghanistan went through in reality and what the characters go though in the book are well summed up in this line from the book:

“Laila never would have believed that a human body could withstand this much beating, this viciously, this regularly, and keep functioning.”

As a reader, I kept wondering how did the Afghans and the two main characters, Mariam and Laila, endure so much destruction and pain?

To me, the war-torn Afghanistan seemed as much a character around whose shifting fate Hosseini weaves this tale, as do all the major and minor people in the book. It is clear that Hosseini wanted the world to know about his native country and its people beyond the headlines they have been reading. He wanted to show that indeed there was a time when Kabul was as beautiful as immortalised by Saib-e-Tabrizi in these lines:

“One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs, Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.”

Though most part of the story that does take place in Kabul is a description of its devastation, Hosseini doesn’t let things descend into total hopelessness for the country and the characters. It all ends on an optimistic note, with Laila returning to a place that gave her so much pain and where she lost so much, all in the hope to rebuild and improve life for herself and others who remained. Though a victim throughout the book, she doesn’t let herself become one at the end.

The novel is very atmospheric, with lots of words from the local languages, folktales, customs and traditions that would seem alien and even a put off to most western readers. And I feel it was a bold move on Hosseini’s part to not go frequently into over explanation about the cultural references for the sake of readers unfamiliar with his setting, though his narration about the political changes taking place did seem like history lessons. But I really enjoyed it as a person interested in world affairs as it made me better understand things that took place in the neighbouring land and which in turn affected things in mine.   

Besides bringing to light all the above-mentioned aspects of his native country, Hosseini has also done the remarkable feat of bringing alive the women of Afghanistan, taking off their veil to show us their emotions, dreams, aspirations, tears, laughter and, most of all, their courage and resilience.

In a sense, this is not just the story of Mariam and Laila, but of countless other women both in Afghanistan and anywhere else in the world, who are, as Hosseini writes here:

“A woman who will be like a rock in a riverbed, enduring without complaint, her grace not sullied but shaped by the turbulence that washes over her.”

I haven’t read Hosseini’s other novels, though I will soon, so I can’t compare this with the others. And I don’t see any point in narrating the story here for I believe those who know Hosseini’s work have read this or at least know its basic plot. For those who haven’t, I really don’t want to give any spoilers as I recommend A Thousand Splendid Suns as a not-to-be-missed novel — but only for readers ready to be moved, even heart-broken by the tale of two women brought together and bounded in love by their shared pain.

Quotes from A Thousand Splendid Suns

Learn this now and learn it well. Like a compass facing north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam.”

Each snowflake was a sigh heard by an aggrieved woman somewhere in the world. All the sighs drifted up the sky, gathered into clouds, then broke into tiny pieces that fell silently on the people below. As a reminder of how women suffer.”

[Mariam] had passed these years in a distant corner of her mind. A dry, barren field, out beyond dream and disillusionment. There, the future did not matter. And the past held only this wisdom: that love was a damaging mistake, and its accomplice, hope, a treacherous illusion.”

Tell your secret to the wind, but don’t blame it for telling the trees.”

Laila came to believe that of all the hardships a person has to face, none was more punishing than the simple act of waiting.”

Marriage can wait. Education cannot…Because a society has no chance of success if its women are uneducated, Laila. No chance.”

The reputation of a girl … is a delicate thing. Like a mynah bird in your hands. Slacken your grip and away it flies.”

It wasn’t easy tolerating him talking this way to her, to bear his scorn, his ridicule, his insults, his walking past her like she was nothing but a house cat. But after four years of marriage, Mariam saw clearly how much a woman could tolerate when she was afraid.”

Laila examined Mariam’s drooping cheeks, the eyelids that sagged in tired folds, the deep lines that framed her mouth—she saw these things as though she too were looking at someone for the first time. And, for the first time, it was not an adversary’s face Laila saw but a face of grievances unspoken, burdens gone unprotected, a destiny submitted to and endured

Miriam wished for so much in those final moments. Yet as she closed her eyes, it was not regret any longer but a sensation of abundant peace that washed over her. She thought of her entry into this world, the harami child of a lowly villager, an unintended thing, a pitiable, regrettable accident. A weed. And yet she was leaving the world as a woman who had loved and been loved back. She was leaving it as a friend, a companion, a guardian. A mother. A person of consequence at last. No. It was not so bad, Miriam thought, that she should die this way. Not so bad. This was a legitimate end to a life of illegitimate belongings.”

She wished she could visit Mariam’s grave, to sit with her awhile, leave a flower or two. But she sees now that it doesn’t matter. Mariam is never very far…. Mariam is in her own heart, where she shines with the bursting radiance of a thousand suns.”

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