21 Jul 2012

A Thousand Splendid Suns: a Review

Hosseini’s second novel has many of the same characteristics as his first, The Kite Runner. Again it is set in Afghanistan society, exploring the life of one individual through the country's tumultuous history. There is nothing formally creative or spectacular about it; the novel’s power lies in its ability to fully absorb the reader into one individual’s life. We follow this persona through the constantly shifting powers in Afghanistan, whether it be nations, groups or individuals.

Rest assured, you will feel the myriad of rage and heartache that readers of The Kite Runner will no doubt be accustomed to. Not only do we have the individual sorrows of characters to deal with, but these are inextricably intertwined with a broader context of a nation’s tragically tumultuous history. A Thousand Splendid Suns highlights Afghanistan’s infrastructure – social, cultural, and political – that entrenches the degradation of the protagonists, Mariam and Laila.

As I’ve already said, Hosseini’s skill is in creating a character that is a victim of failures that are out of their hands. In this case, the female characters are subject to spousal abuse and a society where sexism is fixed in such a way that we in the Western world would find it hard to comprehend. Hosseini, who originates in the country, gives us a bluntly realistic and painful depiction of Afghanistan society:

The freedoms and opportunities that women had enjoyed between 1978 and 1992 were a thing of the past now–Laila could still remember Babi saying of those years of communist rule, It’s a good time to be a woman in Afghanistan, Laila. Since the Mujahideen takeover in April 1992, Afghanistan’s name had been changed to the Islamic State of Afghanistan. The Supreme Court under Rabbani was filled now with hardliner mullahs who did away with the communist-era decrees that empowered women and instead passed rulings based on Shari’a, strict Islamic laws that ordered women to cover, forbade their travel without a male relative, punished adultery with stoning.
After an unsuccessful attempt by Mariam and Laila to leave the country and their abusive husband, they are cruelly beaten and confined. There is a chilling truth in the words that he speaks when he threatens them: if they do it again, “there isn’t a court in this godforsaken country that will hold me accountable for what I will do.”

Hosseini’s fiction adds individuals’ faces to the cruel facts that we already know about the country. Under Taliban rule, inequality is exacerbated and the women are subject to even worse treatment. Their law was brutal and harsh, as we can see in the following extract.

Attention women:

You will stay inside your home at all times. . . If you go outside, you must be accompanied by a mahram, a male relative. If you are caught alone on the street, you will be beaten and sent home.

You will not, under any circumstances, show your face. You will cover with burqa when outside. If you do not, you will be severely beaten. . . .

You will not laugh in public. If you do, you will be beaten. . . .

Girls are forbidden from attending school. All schools for girls will be closed immediately.
Advancing through history, the novel ends after the American-led invasion in 2001. Of course, this was a bitter-sweet affair. Regardless of the consequences we are facing today, the novel concerns the domestic affairs immediately after another foreign invasion. The return of power to the warlords, twinned with the civilian casualties, made this invasion a mixed blessing for the Afghan people. But, particularly for Mariam, Laila and the Afghan women, the freedom it ensured for Afghanistan’s women from the illogical shackles of injustice and cruelty gives the novel a slightly happier ending than many readers could have hoped for.

Of course, all societies in the world still have underlying issues of sexual discrimination. What Hosseini’s novel does best is to remind us of the extent to which some women suffer around the world, putting a name and story to what would otherwise be a faceless newspaper article with an interesting printed statistic. We are unable to turn away from the unimaginable horrors. We are, in a way, as much a prisoner of the author as Mariam and Laila are of their husband: we feel every hit; we are angered by every injustice; we are outraged by the indescribable cruelty inflicted on so many.

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