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I’ve just spent the last two hour or so reading reviews here on LibraryThing and on Amazon for Khaled Hosseini’s second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns. It’s been over a year since I read The Kite Runner. I finished A Thousand Splendid Suns a few days ago.

I didn’t set out to read so many reviews, but the more I read, the more a pattern started to emerge that I wanted to verify. This is what I discovered.

Most people, whether they rated the book three, four, or five stars, said that they enjoyed the reading experience, and that they would recommend the book to other readers. They were spellbound by the characters and their harrowing tale of emotional and physical survival. It was an eye-opening experience for them to learn about the history, people, and culture of Afghanistan— country so often in the news.

But why the wide differences in ratings from people who all really liked the book and recommended it to others? And, why did so many readers start off their reviews by saying that they were disappointed?

Simply, it comes down to two very different types of readers. The lovers of modern literary fiction were disappointed. The lovers of well-written popular fiction were overjoyed.

The popular fiction lovers couldn’t help but love both The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. These people loved the experience of being submerged in a compelling plot that took them on a journey to a world they knew little about. They were enthralled by the many fully believable, yet totally alien characters, and they were spellbound by the strange other-worldly story lines. These readers cared little about the craft behind the novels.

On the other hand, the modern literary fiction readers believed that they had discovered an exhilarating new author. These folks found the prose in Hosseini’s debut novel to be fresh, open, gentle, perceptive, and intimate. They were eagerly awaiting his new novel. When these readers finished Part One of the new novel, they were pleased and thought they were settling down for another wonderful literary treat. However, that feeling quickly disappeared as they started reading the following three parts. As the structure of the novel began to unfold, these readers could see that the author had taken on a huge literary task, one far bigger than he could handle. Many felt that Hosseini was trying to squeeze what amounted to an Afghani version of War and Peace into a brief 350-page tale. In an effort to move the plot along and cover 40 years of recent Afghani history in the remaining three parts, something had to be sacrificed. What the readers started seeing was that the important secondary characters lacked depth, backstory, and believability. They started to appear more like stereotypes. Naturally, these readers were sorely disappointed.

Finally, there were a smaller number of reviewers who found significant political dishonesty in the story. They viewed the author as having purposefully managed the story line to avoid anything that might show American intervention in Afghanistan in a poor light.

So what do I believe? For me, A Thousand Splendid Suns is easily a five-star winner. Yes, I saw the change in depth of characterization that occurred after Part One, and this disturbed me. Yes, it became obvious to me that the author was carefully crafting the tale to avoid anything that would displease a Western audience, and this disappointed me. So, why was it still so easy for me to rate this novel with five stars? It is because the story was so amazingly spellbinding! It physically and emotionally transported me to a different world. In the last three parts, it was easy for me to let my mind create plausible backstories to flesh out the stereotypes and make these secondary characters more believable, and I did not dwell on the fact that this was unnecessary in Part One. I enjoyed my active participation in the story; it brought me deeper inside the plot. And perhaps best of all, this book taught me a great deal about Afghanistan.

1.0 out of 5 stars If you watched CNN these past 20 years, you know as much as the author about Afghanistan
I had high hopes for this book after reading so many glowing reviews, and was surprised at how dull and badly written it is, not to mention devoid of any information about Afghanistan. To anyone with even a superficial knowledge of the Middle East and Islam (like myself), this books feels phony. Farsi and Turkish words are scattered throughout the first half, seemingly to impress the Western audience and exuding a mystical aura. If you understand the words being used, it just looks silly. Why say 'bulbul bird' when you can say 'nightingale', and would never say 'nightingale bird'? Why say 'namaz prayer' rather than 'namaz' or 'prayer'? Why say 'tasbeh rosary', since those two words mean the same thing? How can the author not know the call to prayer (azan) is not once a day but five times a day? And what on earth is 'la illah u ilillah'???? (It should be written 'la ilaha illallah' - There is no God other than Allah. It is only The Most Important Phrase In Islam!)

The book (the author?) has strangely spotty knowledge not only about Islam but also about Afghanistan itself. The only monument ever mentioned in this book are the two giant Buddha statues that were blown up by the Taliban, the only Afghan monuments known to most Western people. Cultural references to Hemingway's 'Old Man And The Sea', Pinocchio, and Titanic just further reduce the credibility of the book, which appears to be written for a foreign audience.

All this felt bizarre until I read a bit about Khaled Hosseini and found out that he had left Afghanistan for Paris with his family in 1976 (when he was 11), and moved on to the US where he lives to this day. So he wasn't even there when the Soviets took over, or when Mujahideen fought them, nor when Taliban took control. He learned about all this the way we all did - from TV and newspapers. The author sadly does not remember much about life in Afghanistan, aside from things like most of the Western world is aware of - women are mistreated and Taliban blew up the Buddha statues. And that is painfully obvious when reading this book.

1.0 out of 5 stars Do not believe the hype

Having spent time both reading about the history of Afghanistan and actually visiting the country I do not have many good words to write about this incredibly over-hyped novel. There are two main issues that exist with this book: characterisation and insight into Afghanistan.

The first thing that hits you about this bestselling (and most recommended) novel is the extremely poor characterisation. The characters can be categorised as either heroic or evil - a wholly unsatisfactory method for making you care about their development. Secondly the insight into Afghanistan can only be described as laughable. As other reviewers have noted it manages to tell us about the destruction of the Buddha's of Bamiyan and how evil the Taliban were/are - wow tell us something we do not know!

This book is an excellent example of orientalist literature that does nothing but confirm Western perceptions of the other - it is written by someone with a distinct lack of knowledge of Afghanistan and has been jumped on by readers in the West in order to confirm their misjudgments. However that is not the worst thing...this book is terribly written and that is the real reason not to buy this horrible piece of trash.

1.0 out of 5 stars Depressing book by a weak writer

It's pretty rare that a book has nothing to add, but this one doesn't contribute anything to your understanding of Afghanistan. Instead it panders to every cliché about the country ever written (downtrodden wives, injustice, a pariah state). It seems like a defence for American foreign policy and contributes nothing you couldn't gain from a mainstream newspaper article or radio news bulletin around the time of the invasion. Hosseini's judgement is poor and he repeatedly stretches credibility with his plot. Characters make massive decisions (to hang themselves, to hand themselves in to the police) with very flimsy reasons and without any time to reflect. The characters are thinly drawn with little explanation for why they are the way they are, and they are very black and white: either good or evil. It's also extremely depressing, but with a syrupy ending tacked on the end. A misjudgement.

2.0 out of 5 stars "A Thousand Splendid Suns"

I read this before 'Kite Runner' assuming the author, based on his reputation, had some high literary merit. Unfortunately he's written another mainstream novel that, like all the others, ends up being praised purely for the fact that it's intolerably depressing and as such masquerades as a book that deals with big issues.

Really it's a sob-story with miserable characters being pummelled with horrible experiences. Sometimes this highlights big issues and makes you think about the subject matter - unfortunately the author makes absolutely no attempt to describe the world of his characters, leaving you stranded and, at times, a little bored. 'Kite Runner', which I'm surprised I ever read following this uninspired attempt, seems to have drawn all its character from the author's own experiences. This one, about women (which the author obviously is not) in Afghanistan (which the author lived in for a few years before moving to the States, and presumably doesn't remember too well), feels pale and shallow, hoping that the plight of its characters is enough to drag it through the mediocre story.

Both main characters are shallow and practically indistinguishable, definable only by the experiences they have suffered. The one three dimensional character, the enforced husband, though nasty, turns out just to be another 2D evil character. The author seems to work only in absolutes and it ends up feeling like a bad journalistic story, as there is no flavour at all.

An annoying trait, one of a couple actually, is that the author translates all his foreign words for the readers. All the characters are speaking in their native tongue and have been translated for the book. So why does the author feel the need to constantly inject foreign words into the dialogue? Is it to hide the fact that, but for this, the story could be set in any damn country in the world? Even worse is that he has to then explain what these words mean in the most unnatural, unrealistic dialogue. A made-up example: "Pass me the 'naan', the bread". Assuming you don't know that naan is bread, this is useful for the English speaking reader, but totally stupid if you were to translate the whole sentence: "Pass me the bread, the bread". What, do they all have stutters? Irritating and just plain bad writing.

If you loved 'The Kite Runner' and are kind of simple, you'll probably really praise this unimaginative, stereotyping, unoriginal, overlong, repetitive, badly-written dross. Anyone else will regret wasting their time on it.

Some points for at least attempting to deal with serious issues, despite glossing over the history of the country and the motivation of the characters.

2.0 out of 5 stars A decent emotional journey, like a bleak soap opera

KH knows to craft a page turner, no one can deny that. His style is, however, clumsy and irritatingly over-explanatory. I know that that is the cliched British criticism of American writing and cinema - it has to explain far too much, when my brain was quite capable of putting the pieces together and remembering earlier events in the book, thank you very much. As just one example of many: a girl tells her mother, who has been grieving for many years over the absence and then deaths of her Mujahideen sons, that her friend is like a brother to her. KH then needs to tell us that the girl knew that she had said the wrong thing as soon as it came out of her mouth. Thanks, KH, I would never have guessed.

This is a work of fiction, so I am not going to criticise KH on the grounds that he only spent a few childhood years (ages 0-5 and 8-11, according to Wiki P) in Afghanistan and has no first hand experience of what he is writing about. The description of Afghanistan is convincing enough for the story, but at no point did I feel as though I was getting any kind of special insight into the country - any well researched Westerner would have written something similar.

What bugs me about this book is the flat characters of the main women and how easy it is to tug a heartstring with a recipe of abused women, families shattered, love lost and brave, tragic children - all without much creativity, character interest or any sort of plot beyond what one would expect from Eastenders.

It's not awful, but I wouldn't recommend it unless you love being emotionally wrenched (and are therefore probably a teenage girl :> )

3.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable and enlightening, but ...

I had read and enjoyed Hosseini's first novel, "The Kite Runner" and was really looking forward to reading this. You can see immediately the similarities with the previous book in the setting, Afghanistan, and style - teaching the reader about Afghan life and troubles through very personal and powerful stories of individuals.

But the are are many differences too. The main characters this time are two women and the historical period is longer, from the 1970s to 2003. So, we learn about Afghan life under the tribal wars, fighting the Russians, the arrival and dominance of the Taliban, and much later the arrival of the Americans and their allies.

The characters are strongly, if not always fully, drawn and we are made very much to empathise with Mariam at first as she is taken to be the wife of a much older man, Rasheed, who turns out to be very cruel, and later Laila, the second, younger and more passive heroine, who is tricked into marrying the same tyrant. The relationship between the two women grows and their suffering and tribulations are described in great detail, so we are drawn into their lives very much.

My response to the book changed as I read it. At first I was thinking I was was reading a book for teenagers as first Mariam and later Laila were young and we were led to empathise with them. This changed, however, as they aged, and the violence increased. Later I felt the characters were too simply drawn: both heroines were too good and Rasheed too evil - I wanted to know what made him like that. In fact most characters were black or white. Mariam's father was the one exception [could we have a spin-off about him?] - a weak man who could not make a stand for his principles and loves.

The ending was the biggest disappointment. Not what happened to Mariam [I won't give that away] but the return of another character was just too neat, too pat a way to end the story. It just convinced me of one feeling I had frequently during the reading, that I was being manipulated a little too obviously into feeling specific things about specific people and events. The epilogue was the final straw, pointing you to a website where you can make contributions to work done in Afghanistan. Was the whole story leading to that?

I feel Hosseini is an excellent story-teller but not a great novelist. He knows exactly how to spin a yarn and pull in the reader to that world and the people in it. He has done excellent service to his country [although, unlike Laila, he does not seem to want to return there from California] in using his narrative skills to point us to their situation. When he starts to write about other places and other issues, then it will be interesting to see if has the same popular appeal. Meanwhile, "A Thousand Splendid Suns" has cemented his growing reputation and good luck to him.

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