Mariam is branded from birth as a ‘harami’, the illegitimate daughter of a rich (weak) man. She lives a life of pain and loss, in which she grows to believe that no-one cares for her, except (belatedly) the mother whose love she couldn’t properly comprehend as a child. Yet Mariam will live forever in Laila’s heart, “where she shines with the bursting radiance of a thousands suns”. So goes the poignant, lyrical story of Khaled Hosseini’s second novel, and what an engrossing, and ultimately uplifting, tale it is.
At its heart, ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns‘ is a study of what it has been like to be poor and female growing up in Afghanistan over the last forty years. As such, sadness, exclusion and suffering are its principle motifs, but the novel is also full of powerful friendships and deep love.
The plot revolves around the lives of the aforementioned two women, Mariam and Laila, who are both young children when we are first introduced to them in their respective eras, born twenty years apart.
Mariam, the elder, loves her father, around whose visits her young life revolves, but is then devastated by his ultimate rejection. Life goes from bad to worse when she is married off as a young teenager to a chain-smoking, abusive cobbler in his mid-forties, and sent from her home in Herat to cook, clean and produce children for him in the capital city, Kabul.
Laila ultimately faces the same marital fate, although her early years, in contrast, are filled with familial love and affection. She also enjoys a life-long friendship with a neighbourhood boy, Tariq, whose confidence and charm is seemingly unaffected by the youthful loss of a leg, courtesy of an abandoned land-mine.
Through a series of life-twists that leave both women desperate and almost, but never completely, devoid of hope, Mariam and Laila are thrown together.
I know too little of the history and politics of Afghanistan to discern the particular slant that Hosseini gives to the forty years of invasion and civil war that encompass the principal characters’ lives. I know the author, who was born and raised in Afghanistan until his parents fled to California in 1980, was accused of a Western imperialistic perspective in his most famous novel, ‘The Kite Runner’. But the national and geo-politics, although ever present in the book, are ultimately incidental to this beautifully told story of two remarkable, yet also very ordinary, women.
‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ was published in 2007 so this review is somewhat belated. The paperback has been on my shelves since another remarkable woman, my Mum, gave it to me for Xmas some years ago. But having devoured the novel in a few days a decade later, I am certain that its timeless themes and beautiful prose will mean that other readers are going to go on discovering and enjoying this book for many years to come.