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Reading: A Thousand Splendid Suns

NOTE: This review was cross-posted from Goodreads. I think I’ve tidied up all the formatting but there might be rogue code in there still.

My version of the cover has review quotes in the empty space but I like this version better.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Women like us. We endure. It’s all we have.”

Khaled Hosseini said himself that his first novel, The Kite Runner, was always going to be a difficult act to follow, that inevitably a new novel would always struggle to get out from the shadow of that powerful début. His approach to that challenge is to show a different part of Afghanistan to the one he showed there, telling the story of two Afghan women, Mariam and Laila.

Both have troubled upbringings. At the novel’s start Mariam is an illegitimate child who essentially lives in exile from the city of Herat, living in a shack on the city’s outskirts with her bitter mother. Laila has a relatively happier time of it in Kabul, but her two brothers are off fighting the Soviets and her mother has taken their absence hard, barely acknowledging her presence.

Things only go downhill from there. Towards the end of The Kite Runner the story became an escalation of tragedy, where every time things seemed like they couldn’t possibly get worse Hosseini somehow found a way for the situation to deteriorate further, just about managing to pull it back from the brink before it became farcical.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is that escalation of tragedy for an entire novel, where almost every bad thing that could happen to a woman in Afghanistan during the past few decades happens to Mariam and Laila. Reading the novel almost takes on a sadistic feel, where turning another page only means increasing their misery, brief islands of hope or happiness only there to enable them to be dashed and bring each character even lower than before.

It’s a good book, powerful and moving at times, but it’s not exactly an experience to enjoy so much as one to endure, to keep turning the pages and hope that eventually there will be a happy ending for characters who do nothing to warrant all the suffering heaped upon them. It does become difficult to imagine any ending could possibly make up for everything they go through, but in a story like this we need to keep on hoping. It’s all we have.

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