I remember just enough of The Kite Runner to know that Khaled Hosseini would break my heart in A Thousand Splendid Suns. And so he did, over and over and over. It’s the story of two women in Afghanistan who each forge a path for themselves, despite and because of the war and oppression in their lives. It’s also a story about friendship and motherhood, both biological and not. As a stepmother and grandmother, it touched me deeply.
Hosseini tells the story of Mariam, the illegitimate daughter of a big man in a small city. She’s married off at just fifteen to a man on the other side of the country. He’s bitter and small-minded, grasping onto the fundamentalist Muslim positions as they become common in Afghanistan. Mariam endures, but just barely.
Alternately, Hosseini brings us Laila’s story. She’s the much beloved daughter in a small Kabul family with more progressive ideas. In terms of mindset and family relationships, she reminds me of memoirist Malala Yousafzai. Laila’s young love with Tariq is precious and innocent. Then tragedy strikes them, as the whole country falls prey to war and unrest. She also must do what’s necessary to survive, no matter how difficult.
Laila and Mariam are unlikely allies against a man who abuses them regularly. His actions also made me think of a recent read of mine—Down Girl by Kate Manne. Let this be your trigger warning, because he is quite horrible. First rivals, then friends, they form a small family unit to manage everything that life throws at them.
Hosseini crosses the decades in his love letter to Kabul and Afghanistan. The city and its inhabitants endure regime after regime, things most of us only read about in the newspaper. By offering the details of two women’s lives, he shows us the human cost of war and the life of a refugee. It’s no less timely today than it was when it was published in 2007.
As I sit here in my quiet little house with central air conditioning and a well-used coffee machine, I know that reading about people like Mariam and Laila makes my world better. Picking up a book from an author like Hosseini opens my eyes, reminds me of women’s lives on the other side of the globe, and makes me glad for the story.
Hosseini is a skilled writer, who knows when to pull at my heart and also when to back off so I can recover. He alternates pain and beauty, love and death. But there’s a sense of hope and survival that makes it bearable. Of course, also remembering that I only have to bear the words, not the real life consequences his characters face.
This is historical fiction at its best. It showed me another world, even as I listened to the audiobook in my car. Truthfully, I grabbed listening time as often as I could, just to hear more. Kudos to Atossa Leoni for her terrific narration as well. This one has all the feels, and gets all the stars.