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A novel of great light, and great darkness
on 15 March 2009
On finishing Hosseini's novel A Thousand Splendid Suns, I went directly to the internet to investigate the work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Here then is the genuine power of storytelling, the ability of a novel to affect a reader and make a difference - and if for nothing else, I am grateful to this novel for opening my eyes a little more.
The strengths of this novel for me lie in two aspects: the depiction of the friendship between Mariam and Laila (a source of great light), and that of the suffocating horror of being a woman under the Taleban regime in Afghanistan (a source of great darkness). In one terrifying section, Rasheed boards up the windows and confines Laila and her baby to their bedroom - a scene that seems like a metaphor for the way the Taleban disempowered women on every level. At the same time, thankfully, Mariam and Laila's friendship is developing, casting the light of their companionship into some of the bleakest moments in their lives.
Men in the novel fare somewhat badly, being rather vague or one-dimensional. Rasheed, the most dominant male character is unspeakably brutal, selfish and without a single redeeming quality, only becoming even more vicious as the novel continues. The other male characters, particularly the "good" guys: one-legged Tariq, and Laila's bookish father, are likeable enough, but essentially weak.
The story itself is surprisingly readable, considering the subject matter, and perhaps this is one of Hosseini's most important skills as a writer. He creates just enough hope to keep us reading, and the (overly) redemptive ending is necessary (this is fiction after all) to balance the terrible events that occur in the rest of the narrative. His prose is functional rather than poetic, the plot turbulent and fast-paced, and I read the last third of the novel in one emotion-charged sitting.
Hosseini dedicated his book to the women of Afghanistan, and it seems a good place to end this review, thinking about these women, and Mariam's mother's words that each snowflake is the "sigh heaved by an aggrieved woman somewhere in the world... As a reminder of how women like us suffer... How quietly we endure all that falls upon us."