In The Kite Runner ( Sept/Oct 2003), Khaled Hosseini, a native of Kabul who came to the United States in 1980, depicted boyhood friendship and adult redemption in war-torn Afghanistan. A Thousand Splendid Suns, in chronicling three decades of turmoil leading up to and after the Taliban, again offers a terrifying perspective on Afghan life. Mariam, an illegitimate daughter of a successful businessman, is forced as a teenager to marry an older, brutal man, Rasheed. When Mariam fails to bear children, Rasheed takes an even younger wife, Laila, whose liberal, intellectual parents were killed when the Communists took over Kabul. As the two women forge strong bonds with each other despite their household’s—and society’s—repression and violence, they suffer, sacrifice, and learn to have faith in love and hope.
Riverhead. 384 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 1594489505
"In A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini does something highly unusual: He surpasses the power and depth of his first novel, The Kite Runner. … 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." Jean Blish Siers
"The violence is as graphic as you would expect in any book that details the atrocities of war. … More than likely, A Thousand Splendid Suns will tear at your heart and make you better understand the legacy of violence our soldiers are fighting against in Afghanistan." Cheryl L. Reed
Los Angeles Times
"Suspended in my otherworldly zone, I discovered the fictional village of Gul Daman, the minarets, bazaars and gardens of Herat, the snowcapped mountains and communal tandoors of Kabul. … [A] worthy sequel to The Kite Runner." Jane Ciabattari
Minneapolis Star Tribune
"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." John Freeman
San Francisco Chronicle
"Readers will also gain a better understanding of the effects of what Hosseini calls the ‘cultural vandalism’ of the Taliban, which shattered Afghanistan’s arts and culture, and the devastating impacts of Shariah law on women’s lives. … Hosseini’s bewitching narrative captures the intimate details of life in a world where it’s a struggle to survive, skillfully inserting this human story into the larger backdrop of recent history." Julie Foster
"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. This is said in full knowledge of Hosseini’s literary shortcomings." Jonathan Yardley
Christian Science Monitor
"The fact that Hosseini began by thinking of his main characters as ‘other’—to the extent of wondering ‘about their inner lives, whether they had ever had girlish dreams’—is a huge hurdle. … If A Thousand Splendid Suns is a little shaky as a work of literature, at least a reader feels that Hosseini has more at stake than where the book ends up on the bestseller list." Yvonne Zipp
"The somewhat overly ambitious plot extends from the relatively peaceful 1960s to the fall of the monarchy in 1973, to the Soviet war, to the Taliban years, to the U.S. invasion, and to the UN and NATO reconstruction efforts. … One senses Hosseini’s reluctance to get close to his female characters, making them seem flat as opposed to the fully realized males in the first novel." Diane Scharper
A Thousand Splendid Suns raises inevitable comparisons to The Kite Runner, which sat on The New York Times best seller list for 103 weeks. Most critics agreed that Khaled Hosseini’s second novel is as devastating, if not even more powerful, than his first. A natural, if not always the most eloquent or subtle, storyteller, Hosseini gives voice to two women trying to survive in a despotic household while caught up in the throes of war. Most critics thought that Hosseini successfully evokes his female characters’ inner lives—not an easy feat for a male author—while a few observed that Mariam and Laila fail to resonate emotionally. Others noted some melodrama and predictability. Despite these quibbles, the novel offers a chilling, all-too-real portrait Afghan life. "It is, for all its shortcomings, a brave, honorable, big-hearted book" (Washington Post).
POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!
The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.
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?