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A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

INTRODUCTION

After 103 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and with four million copies of The Kite Runner shipped, Khaled Hosseini returns with a beautiful, riveting, and haunting novel that confirms his place as one of the most important literary writers today.

Propelled by the same superb instinct for storytelling that made The Kite Runner a beloved classic, A Thousand Splendid Suns is at once an incredible chronicle of thirty years of Afghan history and a deeply moving story of family, friendship, faith, and the salvation to be found in love.

Born a generation apart and with very different ideas about love and family, Mariam and Laila are two women brought jarringly together by war, by loss and by fate. As they endure the ever escalating dangers around them-in their home as well as in the streets of Kabul-they come to form a bond that makes them both sisters and mother-daughter to each other, and that will ultimately alter the course not just of their own lives but of the next generation. With heart-wrenching power and suspense, Hosseini shows how a woman's love for her family can move her to shocking and heroic acts of self-sacrifice, and that in the end it is love, or even the memory of love, that is often the key to survival.

A stunning accomplishment, A Thousand Splendid Suns is a haunting, heartbreaking, compelling story of an unforgiving time, an unlikely friendship, and an indestructible love.
ABOUT KHALED HOSSEINI

Khaled Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1965. His father was a diplomat with the Afghan Foreign Ministry and his mother taught Farsi and History at a large high school in Kabul. In 1970, the Foreign Ministry sent his family to Tehran, where his father worked for the Afghan embassy. They lived in Tehran until 1973, at which point they returned to Kabul. In July of 1973, on the night Hosseini’s youngest brother was born, the Afghan king, Zahir Shah, was overthrown in a bloodless coup by the king’s cousin, Daoud Khan. At the time, Hosseini was in fourth grade and was already drawn to poetry and prose; he read a great deal of Persian poetry as well as Farsi translations of novels ranging from Alice in Wonderland to Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer series.

In 1976, the Afghan Foreign Ministry once again relocated the Hosseini family, this time to Paris. They were ready to return to Kabul in 1980, but by then Afghanistan had already witnessed a bloody communist coup and the invasion of the Soviet army. The Hosseinis sought and were granted political asylum in the United States. In September of 1980, Hosseini’s family moved to San Jose, California. They lived on welfare and food stamps for a short while, as they had lost all of their property in Afghanistan. His father took multiple jobs and managed to get his family off welfare. Hosseini graduated from high school in 1984 and enrolled at Santa Clara University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Biology in 1988. The following year, he entered the University of California-San Diego’s School of Medicine, where he earned a Medical Degree in 1993. He completed his residency at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles and began practicing Internal Medicine in 1996. His first love, however, has always been writing.

Hosseini has vivid, and fond, memories of peaceful pre-Soviet era Afghanistan, as well as of his personal experiences with Afghan Hazaras. One Hazara in particular was a thirty-year-old man named Hossein Khan, who worked for the Hosseinis when they were living in Iran. When Hosseini was in the third grade, he taught Khan to read and write. Though his relationship with Hossein Khan was brief and rather formal, Hosseini always remembered the fondness that developed between them.

In 2006, Hosseini was named a goodwill envoy to the UNHCR, The United Nations Refugee Agency.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS



  1. The phrase “a thousand splendid suns,” from the poem by Saib-e-Tabrizi, is quoted twice in the novel – once as Laila’s family prepares to leave Kabul, and again when she decides to return there from Pakistan. It is also echoed in one of the final lines: “Miriam is in Laila’s own heart, where she shines with the bursting radiance of a thousand suns.” Discuss the thematic significance of this phrase.



  2. Mariam’s mother tells her: “Women like us. We endure. It’s all we have.” Discuss how this sentiment informs Mariam’s life and how it relates to the larger themes of the novel.



  3. By the time Laila is rescued from the rubble of her home by Rasheed and Mariam, Mariam’s marriage has become a miserable existence of neglect and abuse. Yet when she realizes that Rasheed intends to marry Laila, she reacts with outrage. Given that Laila’s presence actually tempers Rasheed’s abuse, why is Mariam so hostile toward her?



  4. Laila’s friendship with Mariam begins when she defends Mariam from a beating by Rasheed. Why does Laila take this action, despite the contempt Mariam has consistently shown her?



  5. Growing up, Laila feels that her mother’s love is reserved for her two brothers. “People,” she decides, “shouldn’t be allowed to have new children if they’d already given away all their love to their old ones.” How does this sentiment inform Laila’s reaction to becoming pregnant with Rasheed’s child? What lessons from her childhood does Laila apply in raising her own children?



  6. At several points in the story, Mariam and Laila pass themselves off as mother and daughter. What is the symbolic importance of this subterfuge? In what ways is Mariam’s and Laila’s relationship with each other informed by their relationships with their own mothers?



  7. One of the Taliban judges at Mariam’s trial tells her, “God has made us different, you women and us men. Our brains are different. You are not able to think like we can. Western doctors and their science have proven this.” What is the irony in this statement? How is irony employed throughout the novel?



  8. Laila’s father tells her, “You’re a very, very bright girl. Truly you are. You can be anything that you want.” Discuss Laila’s relationship with her father. What aspects of his character does she inherit? In what ways is she different?



  9. Mariam refuses to see visitors while she is imprisoned, and she calls no witnesses at her trial. Why does she make these decisions?



  10. The driver who takes Babi, Laila, and Tariq to the giant stone Buddhas above the Bamiyan Valley describes the crumbling fortress of Shahr-e-Zohak as “the story of our country, one invader after another… we’re like those walls up there. Battered, and nothing pretty to look at, but still standing.” Discuss the metaphorical import of this passage as it relates to Miriam and Laila. In what ways does their story reflect the larger story of Afghanistan’s troubled history?



  11. Among other things, the Taliban forbid “writing books, watching films, and painting pictures.” Yet despite this edict, the film Titanic becomes a sensation on the black market. Why would people risk the Taliban’s violent reprisals for a taste of popcorn entertainment? What do the Taliban’s restrictions on such material say about the power of artistic expression and the threat it poses to repressive political regimes?



  12. While the first three parts of the novel are written in the past tense, the final part is written in present tense. What do you think was the author’s intent in making this shift? How does it change the effect of this final section?

More questions:



  1. What did A Thousand Splendid Suns teach you about the history of Afghanistan? Did anything surprise you?



  2. Mariam’s mother says: "Women like us. We endure. It’s all we have." In what ways is this true? How do Mariam and Laila endure? How is their endurance different from the ways their mothers faced their trials?



  3. Several times Mariam passes herself off as Laila's mother. In what way is their relationship like mother-daughter? How did their own relationships with their mothers shape how they treated each other and their family?



  4. What is the significance of Laila's childhood trip to see the giant stone Buddhas above the Bamiyan Valley? Why did her father take her on this trip? How did his influence shape the way Laila would cope with her future?



  5. Afghanistan changes rulers several times in the story. During the Soviet occupation, the people felt life would be better once the foreigners were defeated. Why do you think the quality of life deteriorated after the occupation rather than returning to the way it was in the pre-communist era?



  6. When the Taliban first enter the city, Laila does not believe women will tolerate being forced out of jobs and treated with such indignity. Why do the educated women of Kabul endure such treatment? Why are the Taliban accepted?



  7. The Taliban forbid "writing books, watching films, and painting pictures;" yet the film Titanic becomes a sensation on the black market. Why would people risk the Taliban’s violence to watch the film? Why do you think this particular film became so popular? How does Hosseini use films throughout the novel to symbolize relationships between people and the state of the country (i.e. Jalil's theater, Tariq & Laila's outings to the movies)?



  8. Were you surprised when Tariq returned? Had you suspected the depth of Rasheed's deceit?



  9. Why does Mariam refuse to call witnesses at her trial? Why didn't she try to escape with Laila and Tariq? Do you think Mariam made the right decision? Even though her life was hard, Mariam wishes for more of it in the end. Why do you think that is?



  10. Do you think Laila and Tariq can be happy?



  11. Afghanistan is still in the news a lot. Do you think the situation will truly improve there?


REVIEWS
Hosseini succeeds in carrying readers along because he understands the power of emotion as few other popular writers do. As he did in The Kite Runner, he uses a melodramatic plot to convey vividly the many aspects of love and the ways people sacrifice themselves for those they hold dear. With A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini has shown that he doesn’t intend to be a one-hit wonder. It will be interesting to see where he goes from here.
Lisa See - New York Times Book Review

[The book] going to be another bestseller no matter what's said about it in this and other reviews, so maybe there's no point in going further. But just in case you're curious, just in case you're wondering whether in yours truly's judgment it's as good as The Kite Runner, here's the answer: No. It's better.


Jonathan Yardley - Washington Post

Often, second novels pale in comparison to the first, but this long-awaited story pulls the reader completely into a world of cruelty, despair, pain and poverty and offers hope, redemption and love to offset the anguish. It brings to life a part of the world that the average American knows little about, and makes real for us the very human implications of our foreign policies, long after Afghanistan faded from the headlines.


Charlotte Observer

So what is the point of reading this novel? The texture of these characters' journey around the craters of their country is no doubt well known to readers of international news. Rendered as fiction in A Thousand Splendid Suns, however, it devastates in a new way. It forces us to imagine what we would do had we been born to such grim fates.


Minneapolis Star-Tribune

The book holds the listener thanks to Hosseini's riveting story-an in-depth exploration of Afghan society in the three decades of anti-Soviet jihad, civil war and Taliban cruelty. He impels us to empathize with and admire those most victimized by Afghan history and culture-women. Mariam, a 15-year-old bastard whose mother commits suicide, is married off to 40-year-old Rasheed, who abuses her brutally, especially after she has several miscarriages. At 60, Rasheed takes in 14-year-old Laila, whose parents were blown up by stray bombs. He soon turns violent with her. Although Laila is united with her childhood beloved, the potential return of the Taliban always shadows their happiness.


Publishers Weekly

(Starred review.) Unimaginably tragic, Hosseini's magnificent second novel is a sad and beautiful testament to both Afghani suffering and strength. Readers who lost themselves in The Kite Runner will not want to miss this unforgettable follow-up. —Kristine Huntley


Booklist

Most critics agreed that Khaled Hosseini's second novel is as devastating, if not more powerful, than his first.... [T]he novel offers a chilling, all-too-real portrait Afghan life. "It is, for all its short-comings, a brave, honorable, big-hearted book" (Washington Post).


Bookmarks Magazine

This Afghan-American author follows his debut (The Kite Runner, 2003) with a fine risk-taking novel about two victimized but courageous Afghan women. Mariam is a bastard. Her mother was a housekeeper for a rich businessman in Herat, Afghanistan, until he impregnated and banished her. Mariam's childhood ended abruptly when her mother hanged herself. Her father then married off the 15-year-old to Rasheed, a 40ish shoemaker in Kabul, hundreds of miles away. Rasheed is a deeply conventional man who insists that Mariam wear a burqa, though many women are going uncovered (it's 1974). Mariam lives in fear of him, especially after numerous miscarriages. In 1987, the story switches to a neighbor, nine-year-old Laila, her playmate Tariq and her parents. It's the eighth year of Soviet occupation-bad for the nation, but good for women, who are granted unprecedented freedoms. Kabul's true suffering begins in 1992. The Soviets have gone, and rival warlords are tearing the city apart. Before he leaves for Pakistan, Tariq and Laila make love; soon after, her parents are killed by a rocket. The two storylines merge when Rasheed and Mariam shelter the solitary Laila. Rasheed has his own agenda; the 14-year-old will become his second wife, over Mariam's objections, and give him an heir, but to his disgust Laila has a daughter, Aziza; in time, he'll realize Tariq is the father. The heart of the novel is the gradual bonding between the girl-mother and the much older woman. Rasheed grows increasingly hostile, even frenzied, after an escape by the women is foiled. Relief comes when Laila gives birth to a boy, but it's short-lived. The Taliban are in control; women must stay home; Rasheed loses his business; they have no food; Aziza is sent to an orphanage. The dramatic final section includes a murder and an execution. Despite all the pain and heartbreak, the novel is never depressing; Hosseini barrels through each grim development unflinchingly, seeking illumination. Another artistic triumph, and surefire bestseller, for this fearless writer.


Kirkus Reviews

Khaled Hosseini is a classical storyteller who has clearly demonstrated his talent for crafting tales whose effective, if occasionally melodramatic, plotting and compulsive readability seduce readers --- especially those with scant knowledge of their exotic setting --- from the first page. In this case, he brings those talents to bear to expose the persistent subjugation of women that has marred much of modern Afghan history. At the same time, his determination to make that case contributes to what may be the novel's only notable flaw: the relative lack of complexity in the portrayal of its main characters. Mariam and Laila consistently display saint-like fortitude and courage in enduring almost lifelong persecution. Rasheed is so irredeemably evil it's hard to endure him for the length of time he serves as the novel's dominant male character. A greater degree of subtlety in sketching these characters would have made A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS an even more impressive work.

Near the end of the novel, Laila reflects that "every Afghan story is marked by death and loss and unimaginable grief." With ongoing combat, a flourishing drug trade and even fears of a resurgent Taliban, if Khaled Hosseini chooses to maintain his focus on the tragic story of the Afghan people, one senses he won't run out of compelling material anytime soon. A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS is an absorbing novel that is not afraid to tackle challenging subject matter in an intelligent and thoughtful way. For that reason alone it deserves the wide audience it undoubtedly will secure.
Book Reporter



Oxonian Review
The War-Wearied Women of Kabul

“Maybe you should write about Afghanistan again.… Tell the rest of the world what the Taliban are doing to our country.” In his best-selling first novel, The Kite Runner (2003), Khaled Hosseini’s protagonist, Amir, responded awkwardly to this suggestion. “I’m not quite that kind of writer”, he objected, uneasily.

In his new book, A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini has become “that kind of writer”. But although Hosseini is unmistakably driven to tell the rest of the world what has been happening back home, his exploration of Afghanistan’s relentlessly gut-wrenching recent past is not confined to the notoriously repressive regime instituted by the Islamist Taliban on their arrival in Kabul in 1996. A Thousand Splendid Suns spans decades of Afghan hardship and strife. It opens in 1964, in Herat, Afghanistan’s third largest city, and closes in Kabul, in 2003. It catalogues the successive eras of the reign of King Zahir Shah, Mohammed Daoud Khan’s Republic, communist governance, internecine strife between various mujahideen factions after the withdrawal of Soviet troops, and the arrival of the Taliban. The narrative stays with its protagonists as they wait for the end of the war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, and as they follow the bombing of Afghanistan by the United States in the aftermath of 9/11. It also features the arrival of a UN peacekeeping force and the installation of Hamid Karzai as interim president in 2002. The consequences of these ceaseless upheavals are registered in Hosseini’s tale of lives devastated by wave after wave of brutal misrule, ravaged again and again by incommensurable extremities of pain and grief.

While The Kite Runner was almost entirely devoted to the depiction of the world of boys and men, A Thousand Splendid Suns is a book about the lives of women in Afghanistan’s deeply patriarchal society. From its opening page, the novel relentlessly exposes the injustices to which women are subjected. The story has two protagonists: Mariam and Laila. This double focus imparts breadth and balance to Hosseini’s representation of the problems faced by women across the country. Mariam is a harami, the illegitimate daughter of an already thrice-married rich man, forced to live in shame and secrecy on the outskirts of Herat. When her mother commits suicide, Mariam, aged 15, is promptly married off to Rasheed, an ageing and brutal shoe-maker based in Kabul. With Mariam’s arrival in the Afghan capital, the narrative shifts its focus to Laila, whose beginnings in life, in a house just down the street from Mariam’s, have been comparatively fortunate. Born into a loving and educated family, Laila benefits from the unprecedented opportunities provided for women under the Soviet occupation. As her father remarks, “Women have always had it hard in this country, Laila, but they’re probably more free now, under the communists, and have more rights than they’ve ever had before.” Laila is sustained by her close friendship with her neighbour and classmate Tariq, who lost a leg to a landmine at the age of five: when Laila is bullied by local boys, he defends her with “his unstrapped leg raised high over his shoulder like a sword.” But no life in this novel is left unmarked by the scars of war, and Laila’s precarious happiness begins to unravel as news arrives of the deaths of both her mujahideen brothers at the hands of the Soviets. Kabul soon explodes into civil war. Friends leave or die, blown apart by rockets on streets nearby. When a rocket kills both her parents, Laila, who only just survives, is taken in and nursed back to health by Mariam and her husband. But Rasheed, it soon emerges, has ulterior motives, and exploits Laila’s physical and emotional vulnerability to pressure her into becoming his second wife. From this point on Mariam and Laila’s lives become inextricably linked. The form of the novel responds to these new circumstances: Hosseini’s narrative alternates between the two women’s perspectives. The relationship is a rocky one at first, but Rasheed’s domestic violence, and the birth of Laila’s daughter, Aziza, forge a bond which eventually leads to an act of absolute self-sacrifice on the part of one friend for the sake of the other.

In the opening pages of the book, Mariam’s mother had warned: “There is only one, only one skill a woman like you and me needs in life… It’s this: tahamul. Endure.” Her cynical admonition turns out to be a tragically accurate forecast of the trials that await Mariam and Laila as wives to Rasheed. The wearing of the burqa is the first of the changes required by Rasheed: “For your own protection, naturally. It is best.” Both women experience the strangeness of seeing the world through a mesh screen. Hosseini’s representation of these episodes is impressively even-handed given the book’s mission to raise awareness about the injustice of such male prerogatives. He does not, as might have been expected, blankly dismiss the burqa as an unacceptable patriarchal imposition. Indeed, within a page of Mariam’s first burqa-clad outing, Mariam discovers, to her surprise, that the anonymity the garment provides, and the privacy it affords from prying eyes, are also comforting. Mariam and Laila are subjected to frequent domestic abuse. After one dreadful beating, Laila reflects that before life with Rasheed, she “would never have believed that a human body could withstand this much beating….” Horrific scenes punctuate the narrative with unremitting regularity. When pregnant, Laila is so terrified that she might not be able to summon love for Rasheed’s child that she comes close to using a bicycle spoke to abort the baby. In another appalling passage, the child is delivered by caesarean section in a women-only hospital in which doctors are required to operate in burqas, using rudimentary, unsterile equipment, and where there is no anaesthetic to numb the pain of the operation.

Lighter episodes relieve the narrative tension. Hosseini depicts Laila’s childhood in the same controlled and touching vein as marked the early chapters of The Kite Runner. An exalting trip to see the Bamiyan Buddhas, for instance, affects the reader both emotionally and symbolically. There are other reminders of Afghanistan’s threatened cultural treasure-trove. Laila’s father is moved to tears by a seventeenth-century poem about Kabul. It is from this ode to the city’s ancient beauty that Hosseini draws his novel’s title: “One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs/ Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.” Later on, in the midst of the carnage of war and the ravages of drought, it is a relief to read of even little (and imported) joys, such as the “Titanic fever” that “gripped Kabul” during the summer of 2000. In spite of the ban imposed by the Taliban, the film finds its way onto the city’s (also illegal) TV screens, and “there was Titanic deodorant, Titanic toothpaste, Titanic perfume, Titanic pakora, even Titanic burqas.”

Like The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns ultimately grants its characters and its readers a measure of hope. As the novel draws to a close, we are treated to an exhilarating wealth of good omens: a baby gives its first kick in Laila’s womb as dawn breaks on a newly rebuilt orphanage filled with children settling down to morning lessons. The dream of a peaceful Afghanistan, Hosseini insists, ought not to be relinquished.

This is not a book that works its magic by the strength of its style. Its sentences are clipped, transparent. There are few rhetorical flourishes, and those often come across as melodramatic self-indulgences, which ill befit the integrity and intensity of the characters’ suffering. There is something awkwardly sentimental about the way in which Hosseini constantly hints at later developments, or labours inherently moving moments. Hosseini’s great strength is plot, and his finely crafted storyline overrides the novel’s stylistic weaknesses. Where The Kite Runner strained to straddle two worlds (Afghanistan and America), a strong unity of place adds to this novel’s emotive force by reinforcing the sense of entrapment and claustrophobia that pertains to Mariam and Laila’s lives. A Thousand Splendid Suns involves the reader deeply in the lives of its characters, by sketching a detailed picture of their individual pasts and daily routines. The frequent use of Afghan words and phrases (shaheed for martyr, for instance, or nikka for wedding) adds crispness and poignancy to the depiction of Mariam and Laila’s world. By the time the plot tightens, the effect of Hosseini’s gradual weaving and meshing of storylines and personalities is breathtaking, the suspense almost unbearable.

Part of the book’s affective power derives from the immediacy of the reality to which it refers. It is, inevitably, in dialogue with the myriad news stories and documentaries which provide daily reminders that many of the fictional events described in A Thousand Splendid Suns are true – and true on a grand scale. Mariam and Laila’s lives are charted against the backdrop of recognisable political events, including some of the most shocking and emblematic journalistic images that have come out of Afghanistan in recent years, such as the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in 2001 and the public executions held by the Taliban in Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium. Hosseini’s disclaimer that “The village of Gul Daman is a fictional place –as far as I know” draws attention to the novel’s close correlation of fiction and reality. Similarly, the novel’s Afterword explicitly evokes the real and ongoing Afghan refugee crisis: it tells of the author’s activities as US envoy to the UNHCR and invites the reader to find out more by visiting the organization’s website.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is a good and important book. It is good because it is a gripping, touching novel; it is important because it speaks for women who have long been (and many of whom continue to be) condemned to silence. It is a work committed to helping living people in whatever ways fiction can: it is, in fact, a humanitarian novel.



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