A Thousand Splendid Suns is the story of the Afghanistan war and how it affects the lives of Miriam, Laila, Tariq, Rasheed and their families.
With the war as the background, we are drawn into a world of unhappy families and repressive social customs that award even small deviances with extraordinary punishments.
Miriam, the illegitimate daughter of a rich businessman, is torn between two worlds – the make believe one that her father creates for her on his weekly visits and the reality her mother attempts to keep forcing on her.
Ultimately, reality triumphs and Miriam is forced into marriage with Rasheed. As Miriam finds out, marriage is a brutal struggle to survive an abusive husband and she lives in fear of “his shifting moods, his volatile temperament, his insistence on steering even mundane exchanges down a confrontational path that, on occasion, he would resolve with punches, slaps, kicks, and sometimes try to make amends for with polluted apologies and sometimes not.”
In contrast to Miriam is juxtaposed the second female protagonist of the novel, Laila. She is everything Miriam is not – educated, loved by her father, taught to value herself as a person. Laila is lucky to be born beautiful, have good friends and find Tariq, best friend turned lover to enrich her life.
Laila resents her mother’s indifference to her and her constant mourning of her sons who died fighting against the Soviet occupation. But Laila always has an escape route. Either through her father or with Tariq.
When a rocket lands on their house and kills her parents, Laila finds she is pregnant with Tariq’s child and alone, since Tariq’s family has already left Kabul for Pakistan. Left with no alternative, Laila agrees to become Rasheed’s wife.
Contrived coincidences and mawkish scenes tend to dominate the earlier part of the book. And the characters too tend to be rather flat and one-dimensional. But from this point on, the book really takes hold of the reader.
As the Taliban with its impossible rules makes life meaningless, Miriam and Laila create an alliance and grow as people. Miriam learns what it is to love and be loved in return, they learn to share the child Laila has and whatever bits of happiness they can steal from life.
When Laila becomes pregnant for the second time, it is Miriam who acts as her mother. In their struggle to survive, Laila has become the child that Miriam never had and eventually it is this emotion that foreshadows the end of the book, when Miriam makes her last sacrifice.
For Miriam, there is no happy ending – she dies as she lived – atoning for actions that are wrong only in the eyes of an unjust society.
But Laila and Tariq and the children get a second chance at life and one assumes that Hosseini is suggesting a happy ending for Afghanistan as a whole.
On a personal note, I find it difficult to believe that Laila and Tariq are just going to live happily ever after all that misery they have experienced. But maybe, such miracles do happen…
What Hosseini has done is to twitch away a veil and take us into the everyday life of a war torn country. To show us how war and an oppressive regime are not mere historical events but forces that destroy ordinary lives.
Grab a copy. A book worth reading.