"A Thousand Splendid Suns"
(Reviewed by Amanda Richards JUN 25, 2007)
With his second novel, Khaled Hosseini proves beyond a shadow of doubt that The Kite Runner was no flash in the Afghan pan. Once again set in Afghanistan, the story twists and turns its way through the turmoil and chaos that ensued following the fall of the monarchy in 1973, but focuses mainly on the lives of two women, thrown together by fate.
The story starts decades before the Taliban came into power in 1996, and ends after the era of Taliban rule. The main character begins life as a "harami" - the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy man and one of his housekeepers. Forced to live in a small shack with her emotionally disturbed and possibly epileptic mother, Mariam lives for Thursdays, the day her father comes to see her, bearing small gifts and showering her with the affection she craves. Naturally, Mariam wants to be a part of her father's life and fit in with his legitimate family, but when she attempts to force his hand, she is rebuffed and feels betrayed by his reaction. Her impetuous actions bring an end to the life she has known for fifteen long years, and lead to an arranged marriage to a much older man, a shoemaker, whose views on the rights of women mirror those that the Taliban would soon enforce.
During the time that Mariam is dutifully enduring her unhappy marriage, a neighbor gives birth to a baby girl, whom they name Laila. By her ninth birthday, Laila has grown up to be a beautiful child with blonde hair, turquoise-green eyes, high cheekbones and dimples. Unfortunately, her mother lives only for the day her older sons will return home from fighting the jihad, and is consumed by the vision of a free Afghanistan. Laila's best friend is a boy named Tariq, her confidant, defender and co-conspirator, and by the end of communist rule in 1992, Laila is fourteen, and beginning to see Tariq in a different way that she does not quite understand.
The enthusiastic rejoicing at the end of the jihad is silenced by the internal battles of the Mujahideen, and when the bombs start falling on Kabul, Laila and Tariq are forced apart. Circumstances can make strange things happen, and Laila soon becomes a part of Mariam's husband's household, by necessity rather than choice. The rest of this unforgettable story reflects the heart-rending sacrifices of these women, and allows the reader a peek behind the burqa, to the heart of Afghanistan.
There are parts of this book that will have grown men surreptitiously blotting the tears that are on the verge of overflowing their ducts, and by the time you get to the middle, you won't be able to put it down. Hosseini's simple but richly descriptive prose makes for an engrossing read, and in my opinion, A Thousand Splendid Suns is among the best I have ever read. This is definitely not one to be missed.
- Amazon readers rating: from 1,815 reviews
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"The Kite Runner"
(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JUN 06, 2003)"I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid, overcast day in the winter of 1975," Amir tells us in the opening lines, when he, a successful novelist now living in Fremont, California, receives a phone call from his father's former business partner, Rahim Khan, now in Pakistan. Rahim had stayed behind in Afghanistan when Amir and his father escaped to America in 1981, and he is now dying. An intimate part of the family, Rahim has long been aware of a childhood betrayal committed by Amir, one which had catastrophic consequences for others and which has tormented Amir for his entire life. "There is a way to be good again," Rahim Shah tells him, and Amir immediately sets off for Pakistan to see him for the last time.
In flashbacks, Hosseini recreates the day-to-day existence of Amir and his father, a highly successful merchant in Kabul in the 1970's, creating a warm and emotionally involving story of childhood and its traumas and stressing the importance of family in times of trouble, as he follows the lives of Amir and his father until Amir is in his late thirties. But this is more than the story of Amir and Baba. It is also the parallel story of Hassan and Ali, their servants, who represent an entirely different world. Amir and Baba are Pashtuns, while Hassan and Ali are Hazaras, descendants of the Moguls who are also Shi'a Muslims, and it is in these parallel tracks that we come to see the variety of life in Afghanistan, its mores, traditions, and its hierarchies.
As infants, Amir and Hassan share the same wet nurse, both boys having lost their mothers within a week of their births, and this shared experience proves to be prophetic of their close relationship. Just as Baba and Ali have been closer than most masters and servants, Amir and Hassan grow up together, are best friends, and even get into trouble together. Hassan, however, always knows he is Amir's servant, and he is often cruelly mocked by others who consider him inferior because of his ethnicity, his Mongoloid features, and his unrepaired hare-lip.
The best "kite runner" in Kabul, Hassan is often first on the scene to capture prized kites when their lines are cut during kite-flying competitions, a huge spectator sport in Kabul. During one of these competitions in which Amir is participating, Hassan captures a particularly prized trophy. Emerging from an alley, he finds himself confronted by several fierce bullies, and when he refuses to give in to them and hand over the trophy kite, he is beaten, tortured, and severely injured. Amir, chancing upon the scene in time to prevent some of the damage, runs away in fear instead, abandoning Hassan. Later, tormented by what he has done and jealous of the close relationship his father has with Hassan and Ali, Amir ensures that Hassan and Ali will be dismissed.
Six years later, after a Communist coup in Afghanistan, Baba uses his wealth and connections to escape with Amir to Pakistan and eventually the United States, where he works in a gas station, and on weekends sells goods at a public flea market so that Amir can go to college. In this middle section of the book, the relationship between Amir and his father changes dramatically. Away from the roles demanded of them in Kabul, they are on a more equal footing as they explore their new lives in America. Remaining part of the close Afghan community where they live, they maintain traditions and values in their relationships with other Afghans, while finding their roles in America, roles reversed in some ways. When, twenty years after leaving Kabul, Amir gets his call from Rahim Khan, he returns to Pakistan and eventually to Afghanistan, where he has a chance to relive circumstances similar to those in which, many years before, he betrayed Hassan, this time discovering a way to "be good again."
Hosseini's narrative is fast-paced, and his sensitive portrayal of childhood with all its fears and tensions is particularly striking. The glimpses of Afghan family life and values are captivating, particularly because they have been virtually unknown in American fiction, but it is the author's focus on the humanity of the characters that gives the novel its universality and great appeal. Amir's betrayal of Hassan is believable and understandable in human terms, apart from culture, and his long-term remorse is not surprising. Hassan's nobility in the face of his trauma, born from both his unwavering acceptance of his role as a servant and his genuine affection for Amir, gives him a saintly aspect which never cloys--he has simply accepted the role he's been given in life. Baba is almost larger than life, and though he never knows exactly what it is that Amir has done, he is sensitive enough to be disturbed by it when it occurs, especially since he fears that it may signal weakness. It is only much later that Amir discovers that Baba, too, has kept some secrets.
Afghan cultural traditions, which stress pride, honor, and a sense of hospitality toward strangers, add color to this narrative, and when scenes involving the Taliban are presented in the last part of the book, the true horror of their repression of a living culture, in addition to their repression of individuals, becomes obvious. By following two families, one in the U.S. and one in Afghanistan, the contrast becomes even clearer.
This dual focus, however, creates a few structural problems for the author at the end of the novel, as he must figure out a way to connect all his characters. Relying heavily on coincidence, and in the case of diplomatic officials, on stereotypes, he ties up the loose ends and resolves the conflicts. This was a bit distracting to me, as some of the coincidences are not necessary and do not advance the story line--Amir's meeting an old beggar, who turns out to have been a university teacher who knew Amir's mother as a young woman, for example. Details related to the fate of a daughter of a consular official with whom Amir deals seem artificial, inserted only to provide parallels with Amir's own circumstances. When Amir gets a split lip, the parallels with the hare-lipped Hassan are obvious, and probably unnecessary. Despite some narrative clumsiness, however, the novel is a moving, dramatic, personal, and compelling read, fascinating in its setting and in its development of the father-son relationship. I was totally engaged by its characters--and by its considerable charm.
- Amazon readers rating: from 3,004 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Wikipedia page on Khaled Hosseini
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About the Author:
Khaled Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1965. The son of a diplomat, his family received political asylum in the United States in 1980. He currently lives in northern California where he is a physician.