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"Splendid Suns" gives a view from Inside the Veil

Written by Diane Scharper  •  July 2008 PDF Print E-mail
Two Afghan women fight to endure decades of oppression; Originally Published in The Denver Post, May 20, 2007, pg. F.13


 

Khaled Hosseini's first novel, The Kite Runner (2003), mined the bloodshed, murder, rape and abuse occurring in contemporary Afghanistan. With its protagonist an Afghan-American male like Hosseini, the story was praised for its authenticity and immediacy. That, coupled with its historical ramifications in the post Sept. 11, era catapulted the novel to third place on the best-seller list and paved the way for Hosseini's highly anticipated second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns.

The two novels work a similar territory. Two Afghan protagonists of differing backgrounds become close friends, with their friendship tested by the trying times in which they live. But instead of featuring male leads as in the first novel, the action of A Thousand Splendid Suns shifts between two heroines, Mariam and Laila.

Mariam is reminiscent of characters found in a Charles Dickens novel. Born out of wedlock in 1959 to the servant of a wealthy, conservative businessman, she is raised in extreme poverty by her epileptic mother. They live in a shack on the outskirts of Herat, a city of poetry and culture, and Mariam knows something of both only because she is tutored by the one person who seems to care about her, a village elder, who is well-versed in the Koran.

Although she asks to go to school, her request is denied. Don't ask about going to school, her mother advises. You'll find nothing there but rejection and heartache. You need learn only one thing: how to endure. And endure Mariam does. Rejected by her father, Mariam at 15 is forced into an arranged marriage with a middle-aged Afghan fundamentalist, whose abusive tendencies increase when she is unable to conceive a child.

Nineteen years younger than Mariam, Laila is born into a middle- class family in Kabul, the Afghan capital, at a time when the country is fighting the communists. Her two brothers have joined the revolution; her mother - suffering from worry and depression - has taken to her bed; and her father, a schoolteacher, who has been fired from his job by the communist government, encourages Laila to get an education.

Hosseini gives a chilling account of school days during the communist regime in the 1980s when women (at least) had the freedom to go to school. But as Hosseini depicts it, that freedom comes at a high price.

The communists use the classroom to plant pro-Soviet propaganda telling the students that they must report any rebel activity even if it occurs at home, because no one can love them as much as their country does: 'Your country comes first, remember!' But this attitude seems almost idyllic beside the country's internal tumult, which is difficult to understand even for the novel's characters - to say nothing of its readers.

Tribal fighting among the Pashtuns, the Hazaras, the Uzbeks, the Tajiks - and others - adds fuel to a hotbed of unrest and increases tension, ultimately resulting in the deaths of Laila's friends and of her family members.

When Laila is rescued from the rubble that was her home by Mariam's husband, Rasheed, the two women meet, and although, at first, the two are adversaries, they soon become friends against a common enemy - Rasheed, who marries Laila and brutalizes both of his wives.

Born in Kabul, Hosseini knows well the political, religious and social turmoil of Afghanistan's recent past and paints a vivid picture of life after the Taliban overthrows the communists and takes over the government in 1996. As Hosseini describes it, citizens are allowed to do almost nothing but pray and work; singing, dancing, playing games, writing books, painting pictures - even keeping parakeets - are forbidden.

But a woman's lot is more difficult. Females are not allowed on the street without the accompaniment of a male relative. Nor are they allowed to show their faces - just as well because cosmetics, jewelry and nail polish are forbidden. Those caught wearing nail polish will lose a finger. Adulterers will be stoned to death.

When Rasheed's abuse of his wives is sanctioned by law, circumstances for Laila and Mariam go from bad to worse. Having grown up in a repressed environment, Mariam can more easily adapt, but Laila, whose father encouraged her to think for herself, rebels against Rasheed's dictates as well as those of the Taliban.

Her rebellion adds to the conflict and leads to the tale's brutal climax. The characters face this in a Dickensian manner as in 'A Tale of Two Cities,' - which in a sense the novel is, since it takes place in the cities of Herat and Kabul and concerns the sacrifices of friendship amid difficult, revolutionary times.

The somewhat overly ambitious plot extends from the relatively peaceful 1960s to the fall of the monarchy in 1973, to the Soviet war, to the Taliban years, to the U.S. invasion, and to the UN and NATO reconstruction efforts. The tale's few halcyon moments stand out in sharp contrast to the ever-present turmoil, as does the title, which, alluding to lines from a 17th-century poem praising Kabul, provides poetry in an otherwise desolate environment.

From the suicide of Mariam's mother early in the story to the bombing of Laila's home later on, to the numerous beatings visited on both women, the novel contains more than enough horrific events. But few events are internalized. One senses Hosseini's reluctance to get close to his female characters, making them seem flat as opposed to the fully realized males in the first novel.

Mariam and Laila register the circumstances around them, but spend little time reflecting on them. This keeps readers at arm's length while making the characters seem more like victims and less like people being victimized.

With much of the action told but not shown, the story moves quickly. But this story is character-driven and needs to show the feelings that evolve between the two heroines, which it seldom does. It also needs to resonate emotionally, which it also seldom does.

In the final pages, the narrative shifts - inexplicably - from the past tense into the present tense and into Laila's head, adding the sense of immediacy that the story has lacked all along. But by then, many readers will feel that this is too little too late.  


Author: Khaled Hosseini
Publisher: Riverhead (May 22, 2007)
Pages: 384 pages, Hardcover
Price: $25.95
ISBN-10: 1594489505 
ISBN-13: 978-1594489501 
Other Editions: Paperback, Audio CD, Kindle Edition

Diane Scharper is a professor of English at Towson University and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. She is also that author of the forthcoming 'Reading Lips,' to be published by Apprentice House in fall of 2008.


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