Affection Nurtured by Common Suffering: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

My taste in reading trends towards World Literature. Having lived a transcultural life, I’m acutely aware that there are other ways to live,  think, and worship.

Often, World Literature tells stories by foreign or immigrant authors that take place in the country and culture of their origins. Sometimes American-born authors write these stories and situate them in places other than US cities or small-town America. Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son gives us a view into North Korea.

When a book leaves a deep impression on me, writing about it helps me understand why and how it speaks to me.

Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns (published 2007) is the first book I’ve read set in Afghanistan. But it’s not the first one about the oppression of women. Its author is an Afghan -American, a transcultural author whose family came to the US when he was 15 to seek political asylum.

Though the story begins in the outskirts of the city of Herat, Kabul is where most of the action takes place. It’s the largest city in Afghanistan.

I won’t summarize the plot of the novel. You can find that in Wikipedia.

Asked about the themes of this novel and the earlier one that brought him fame (The Kite Runner), the author says:

“Both novels are multigenerational, and so the relationship between parent and child, with all of its manifest complexities and contradictions, is a prominent theme.”

I thought it curious that he chose parent-child relationships to focus on. To me, that isn’t what stood out. Instead, it’s the place of women in Afghan society. Fiction set in Islamic countries often depict the society’s attitude towards women: They are inferior to men and are not much better than beasts of burden.

Afghan women in burqa

Such is the mindset of Rasheed, the man Mariam and Laila marry. The suffering he inflicts on the women is the most egregious I’ve encountered in a novel.. Abusive in all the ways one could possibly be, he beats each woman senseless at some point in the story. Not all male characters are like Rasheed. Thankfully. Two or three secondary male characters treat wives and daughters kindly and with affection.

The second and more compelling theme for me is how their common suffering unite Laila and Mariam in friendship and affection . Separated by one generation, they marry for different reasons and under different circumstances. Though the older Mariam—who failed to produce the valued son—starts out resentful and angry towards Laila, the advantage the latter initially enjoys begins to erode when her first-born turns out to be a girl.

Much has been said about the title of the book that, at first, seems to conflict with what happens in the novel. It’s a line from a 17th-century poem that evokes the beauty and romance of Afghanistan. Hosseini has obviously been fascinated by it. He introduces the poem in an early episode when Laila’s father recites it. Towards the end, the phrase “a thousand suns” comes up again to signify hope and love when it alludes to Mariam’s place in Laila’s heart.

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