Khaled Hosseini has a knack for heart-rending narrative. It was the case in his debut novel The Kite Runner and it’s the case in A Thousand Splendid Suns, his second novel. Thematically, the two are comparable. We have the child start in Afghanistan, we have two major characters who have a difficult and complicated relationship, we have the backdrop of civil war, coups and violence in both novels. Where A Thousand Splendid Suns differs is its characters.
The story initially follows the young girl, Mariam, who lives in a tiny mud hut in the Herat province of rural Afghanistan. She is a harami, essentially a child born out of wedlock, and as such is shunned by her father, Jalil Khan, (save for his false smile plastered visits every Thursday). Mariam’s prying into her father’s life gets her sent away to Kabul to marry a moderate shoemaker named Rasheed who is thirty years older than she is. Mariam, unfortunately cannot bear him the son he craves, and becomes distant and irritable towards her. Laila is the daughter of a woman-about-town in the area of Kabul Mariam finds herself. She is a blonde head-turner and turns the head of Tariq, a childhood friend. Tariq leaves Afghanistan under the oppression of the Taliban and Laila, once old enough, is taken in by Rasheed as a wife, with the intent of her giving him a son.
The relationship between Mariam and Laila is initially one of intense bitterness, but they eventually form a bond of an almost sisterly quality, despite their age gap of close to fifteen years.
The one problem I had with A Thousand Splendid Suns is that is feels somewhat regurgitated. It was an excellent novel, I have to admit first, and a powerful, emotional and moving read which evoked intellectual ideas as well as brought a tear to your eye. But, so was The Kite Runner. Some of the themes which Hosseini concentrated on in The Kite Runner were very similar to some of the themes portrayed in A Thousand Splendid Suns. They are still good themes and excellent to read, but they just hark too much back to his other work. It’s true enough to say that he writes about Afghanistan and he can’t write anything but the truth of what it was like and what happened there but I feel there could have been more to put the two apart.
The novel has its differences in that the protagonists are women, and as such are significantly oppressed during the novel. The idea that blame will always find a woman is a powerful one and certainly holds true in the narrative. The other notable difference is the lack of America in the novel compared to its predecessor. Hosseini moved to America and became a novelist, much like The Kite Runner protagonist, Amir. There are brief mentions of America in A Thousand Splendid Suns but it’s far more grounded in the east.
To put it simply, A Thousand Splendid Suns isn’t Hosseini’s best work, but only because it lacks the raw power of originality which his debut novel held so clearly. I’d recommend it as a good book to read, if you’ve already read The Kite Runner and enjoyed it. But for me, it has a bitter hint of a formula that works about it which knocks a few marks off a great book. The praise it’s been draped in speaks for itself though. It’s definitely worth your time. But read his first book first.