I’ve read a few online reviews suggesting that A Thousand Splendid Suns is not as good as Hosseini’s masterpiece first novel, The Kite Runner. With all due respect to the writers of those reviews, they are so, so very wrong. At least from my perspective. I thought this novel was, if anything, better and more compelling than The Kite Runner. From the moment I picked it up, I was completely drawn in to the story of two women, Mariam and Laila, who start out from very different places in life but end up drawn together in ways that are seem impossible and yet inevitable.
The huge canvas upon which this intimate story is painted is Afghanistan over the last 30 years — a country in an almost constant state of war, with alliances and allegiances constantly shifting. The same characters who cheer the departure of the Soviet occupying force and welcome the Taliban as liberators, find themselves almost immediately afterwards crushed by the harsh realities of Taliban rule. There are no heroes and no good guys except for the ordinary people trying to survive in a world of chaos — particularly the two women at the centre of this novel.
Earlier this year I read a good memoir about a woman growing up in Afghanistan under Soviet rule (Nelofer Pazira’s A Bed of Red Flowers). That was interesting and informative, but contrasting it to A Thousand Splendid Suns really underlines what fiction can do that non-fiction can’t. The true story of a woman’s experience, written by that woman herself, should be the most powerful and compelling way to draw the reader into an experience. A work of fiction, written by an Afghan male who left the country in 1980 and wasn’t even around for most of the events he describes, shouldn’t be able to provide such an overwhelming, emotionally engaging glimpse into women’s experience in that place and time. But Khaled Hosseini does it.
The book is sad — horrifying in places — but also hopeful and inspiring. When I read Pazira’s memoir, I felt I knew a lot more about Afghanistan. When I finished A Thousand Splendid Suns, I felt I had briefly visited Afghanistan, made friends there, and wept for the friends I’d lost to thirty years of war. To make people who we know only as “strangers,” “foreigners,” or even “the enemy” into neighbours; to change “them” into “us” — there’s nothing more powerful that a beautifully written work of fiction can do.