Like diamonds and roses hidden under bomb rubble, ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ is an intense beauty and strength buried under the surface of the cruel and capricious life imposed upon two Afghani women. The writer Khaled Hosseini offers us the sweep of historic upheavals narrated with the intimacy of family life. In this novel, he weaves the stories of two Afghan women during several decades of cultural turmoil.
The two protagonist women are Mariam and Laila, born 20 years apart, but whose lives are intertwined through the events of the novel. Mariam is the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy merchant named Jalil who has 3 wives and 9 “legitimate” children. Mariam’s mother, Nana, was a servant in Jalil’s house whose affair with Jalil resulted in Mariam. As you might expect, the 3 wives were less than enthused and Nana and Mariam were forced to live on the outskirts of town, making Nana often a cruel person to Mariam.
Fate makes Mariam married at 15 to Rasheed when her Nana commits suicide and her father Jalil due to his other wives’ reluctance to take her in. Mariam becomes a victim of physical and mental abuse of Rasheed after her continuous miscarriages ending their happy conjugal life which was seen at the beginning.
The other main character is Laila who lives in the same area Rasheed and Mariam. Laila’s story begins with her close friendship with a boy named Tariq who loses a leg to a Soviet land mine when he’s 5 years old. Years later, with Kabul under constant rocket attacks, Laila’s family decides to leave the city. During an emotional farewell, Laila and Tariq make love. Later, as her family is preparing to depart Kabul, a rocket kills her parents and severely injures Laila.
Rasheed digs Laila out of the rubble and takes her in. Within weeks, Laila, who is led to believe Tariq is dead, becomes Rasheed’s second wife. And she discovers that she is pregnant. Mariam is initially hurt and threatened by Laila’s presence and refuses to have anything to do with her. However, after Laila gives birth to a daughter, Aziza, the women come to see themselves as allies against Rasheed’s abusive, manipulative ways. A few years later, Laila gives birth to a son, Zalmai. Then, one afternoon, after years of abuse and sadness, Laila is shocked to see a man standing at her front door: Tariq. Tariq and Laila spend the afternoon together while Rasheed is at work. When Rasheed finds out about their meeting, he brutally beats Laila. With a shovel, Mariam kills Rasheed. The next day, Mariam turns herself over to the Taliban in an effort to clear the way for Laila to find sanctuary for herself and her children in Pakistan with Tariq.
What keep this novel vivid and compelling are Hosseini’s eye for the textures of daily life and his ability to portray a full range of human emotions, from the smoldering rage of an abused wife to the early flutters of maternal love when a woman discovers she is carrying a child.
While there is much of darkness and pain throughout the book, Hosseini never allows the emotional tone of the story to descend in melodrama. There is little self-pity or wallowing in grief. There is pain, there is loss but there is no surrender. Instead, these women absorb tremendous blows (both figuratively and literally) and continue to live their lives.
One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roof,
Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.