February 24, 2010

A Thousand Splendid Suns

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I have gotten a little bit out of the habit of writing movie and book reviews here, but it's something I love to do so I'm going to try and work it back in more regularly. As you may know, I have established an ongoing goal of reading 52 books per year. That works out to roughly one a week, although sometimes more, sometimes less. In 2008 I succeeded, in 2009 I totally failed and only read 36. I blame the morning sickness. We'll see how I do this year with a newborn on the way. My list of books read in 2010 is here.

The first book I finished this year was "A Thousand Splendid Suns" by Khaled Hosseini. We read Hosseini's first book, "The Kite Runner," as a book club selection last year. I thought it was okay, but didn't love it. I had heard for a long time that his second book surpassed the first, but was afraid to read it for a long time. Here's a description of the book (pulled from Amazon.com):

Afghan-American novelist Hosseini follows up his bestselling The Kite Runner with another searing epic of Afghanistan in turmoil. The story covers three decades of anti-Soviet jihad, civil war and Taliban tyranny through the lives of two women. Mariam is the scorned illegitimate daughter of a wealthy businessman, forced at age 15 into marrying the 40-year-old Rasheed, who grows increasingly brutal as she fails to produce a child. Eighteen later, Rasheed takes another wife, 14-year-old Laila, a smart and spirited girl whose only other options, after her parents are killed by rocket fire, are prostitution or starvation. Against a backdrop of unending war, Mariam and Laila become allies in an asymmetrical battle with Rasheed, whose violent misogyny—"There was no cursing, no screaming, no pleading, no surprised yelps, only the systematic business of beating and being beaten"—is endorsed by custom and law. Hosseini gives a forceful but nuanced portrait of a patriarchal despotism where women are agonizingly dependent on fathers, husbands and especially sons, the bearing of male children being their sole path to social status. His tale is a powerful, harrowing depiction of Afghanistan, but also a lyrical evocation of the lives and enduring hopes of its resilient characters.

In terms of politics, I feel that women's issues are probably the most visceral to me. Beyond even that is the idea of human issues, going beyond mistreatment of women into mistreatment of human beings or groups in general. It's something I seem to have a bizarre fascination with, I think because I cannot really understand it on anything more than a surprised and confused level.

I thought that this was an amazing story. I loved how Hosseini intertwined the lives of the women he was writing about. The fact that this novel focused on female characters and their relationships rather than the male father/son relationships of "The Kite Runner" made it more appealing to me. At the same time, it frightened me a little because I knew that it would be emotional reading.

Though I was a little bit afraid to get started, I found that I handled the story pretty well. Nothing became truly unbearable to me until I was 240 pages into the book, at which point one of the main characters, Laila experiences an act of violence that is unthinkable. She is locked in a room with her baby daughter for several days with no food, light, or water by her husband. Even looking back at my copy to check page numbers, I can feel a sickness begin to grow in the pit of my stomach thinking about it. At the same time, it's part of the story, and unfortunately a very real part of the story.

Seven pages later, trucks roll into town and the country becomes known as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The trucks have loudspeakers over which new laws are read out loud. I don't know whether Hosseini wrote these laws out himself, or where the information was from. But due to the rest of the story and his other books, I believe these are a fairly accurate representation of what happened when the Taliban took over in 1996. Think, for just one moment, about living in a world where these are some of the rules...

...singing is forbidden.
Dancing is forbidden...

...Writing books, watching films, and painting pictures are forbidden...

...Attention women:
You will stay inside your homes at all times. If is not proper for women to wander aimlessly about the streets. If you go outside you must be accompanied by a
mahram
, a male relative. If you are caught alone on the street, you will be beaten and sent home.
You will not, under any circumstance, show your face. You w ill cover with burqa when outside. If you do not, you will be severely beaten...

...You will not speak unless spoken to.
You will not try to make eye contact with men.
You will not laugh in public. If you do, you will be beaten.
You will not paint your nails. If you do, you will lose a finger.
Girls are forbidden from attending school. All schools for girls will be closed immediately...


Imagine a world where you are less than. It's hard for people like me who have lived in the US our entire lives, and despite whatever hardships we've faced, none were even close to this. To me, one of the most fascinating things about the story was the timing. I figured out early on that one of the main characters, Laila, was two years older than I am. This really anchored me to the story and gave me perspective on the fact that all of this was happening NOW. Not years or decades ago, but during the same lifetime in which I have lived with great freedom, support, and confidence as a woman. The above rules? Rolled out by the Taliban when I was 16 years old. Attending school, driving a car, being what in our world is a normal teenager.

It was amazing to me to think that at the end of the story, Laila is only 25 years old, three years younger than I am now. But she seems SO much older. Living the kind of life she did under suppression and fear aged her in a way I am lucky that I will never know. Though the book is fiction, I feel that Hosseini gives a VERY realistic picture of what life was like in Afghanistan during the past fifty years.

I also feel that I learned a great deal about the history of the regimes in Afghanistan and what has changed over the past few decades. One of the most interesting things to me was that during the course of the book, which takes place mainly between 1974 and 2003, women in Afghanistan went from having many options and freedoms to having almost none. I felt a similar sadness and astonishment when reading Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis," knowing that it wasn't just that women have been suppressed for a long time. It was freedom, followed by a re-suppression and smashing down of rights and humane treatment.

"A Thousand Splendid Suns" is the amazing story of the strength of two women, and how the grow to support each other and to survive, together. It sheds light not only one what people can do TO each other, but what they can do FOR each other, and how we affect each other as we live. It's a good story, and in my case another reminder to count the blessings I experience daily.

You can visit Mr. Hosseini's website here to find out more about this and his other books.

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