I would never have picked this book up on my own, and as much as it’s an emotional roller coaster, I’m actually very happy my book club decided to read this. On a craft level, this book is incredibly accessible. I blew through it in two days, and literally thought about the characters every minute I wasn’t reading. It’s emotional, painful, with moments of brilliant love, and at its core, it’s the story of humans enduring the worst and still pressing on.
A Thousand Splendid Suns follows two Afghani women, Mariam an unwanted child of an ill begotten union from Herat, and Laila, an educated girl from Kabul growing up during the Soviets’ Communist regime. The two young women’s stories collide when they end up in the same house after the jihad ousting of the Soviets in the late eighties. While their backgrounds are different; Mariam is a beaten soul, and Laila smart, but naive, the two find solace and eventually friendship in one another. Houssini does an excellent job of writing two strong female leads, and shies away from nothing in the brutality that women face at the hands of the jihad and fundamental belief systems. It was surprising to me that this novel was so convincingly written by a man, and I give him great props for his wonderful characterization. At no time do you feel like these are the women of a man’s fantasy, and their truthfulness is one of the main reason this book stuck with me so long after I put it down.
Houssini also does a marvelous job of bringing the interior and exterior spaces together in this book. He weaves the tumultuous horror going on outside these women’s lives into the day-to-day existence, showcasing just how much war effects the tiniest of the mundane. As readers, we get to see the breakdown of the family life at the same rate as the country as loved ones are disintegrated by bombs and a once beautiful and modern city is ravaged into nothingness by the army that was supposed to save it.
On a personal note, I had a jarring juxtaposition since most of the events of this novel happened at the same time I was growing up as an American teenager. Lailia is the same age as me as she goes through the atrocities of the Afghan wars, and it was a strange reality for me to read about what was happening to a contemporary on the other side of the world. While I was sitting in a classroom learning about the Pythagorean Theorem, Laila (albeit a fictional character) was raising two kids with an abusive husband while war blew up her city…at the age of 16. One of the greatest assets of this story is it’s not happening in a far away time, it’s happening in our own memory, from the point of view of those who lived it, and as much as it was often painful to read, it was necessary.