Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns stood poised for overwhelming success even before its publication last week. The author’s first novel, The Kite Runner, sold more than three million copies worldwide, was published in forty countries, and the movie version is scheduled for release in November. Film rights to A Thousand Splendid Suns have already been sold, and publisher Riverhead has invested in a first printing of more than 500,000 copies. Perhaps not Potter-mania, but in an age of declining readership for adult novels, this represents a major literary event.
As in The Kite Runner, Hosseini relies on the turbulent events of the past thirty years of Afghan history as backdrop for his story. The events lend themselves easily to dramatic treatment – the coups of the 1970s, the Soviet occupation in 1979, the troop withdrawal ten years later, the resulting civil wars and the rise of the Taliban, and its eventual collapse in the aftermath of U.S. intervention. Against this tapestry of violence, tyranny and oppression, Hosseini tells the tales of two women, Mariam and Laila.
Mariam, the illegitimate child of a Herat businessman, is forced into a loveless marriage at age fifteen to a middle-aged Kabul shoemaker, Rasheed. He demands absolute obedience from his spouse, as well as strict observance of Islamic customs restricting the movement, appearance and attire of women. In the early years of their marriage, Rasheed’s mandates run counter to the modernizing forces in Kabul, where many women hold professional jobs, teach at the university, or run for public office. But with the rise of the Taliban, a whole society falls into lockstep with these dictates of Sharia, traditional Muslim law.
Laila, a woman young enough to be Mariam’s daughter, becomes a reluctant member of this household, when her parents are killed in a bombing, and all her friends have either died or departed from Kabul. Rasheed takes her on as a second wife, and his bullying and overbearing behavior grow all the worse as the two women band together to resist his authoritarian control over their lives.
The novel traces the trials and tribulations of Mariam and Laila as they struggle for survival, and eventually plan for a daring escape attempt that puts them at odds not only with Rasheed, but with an entire society that sees them as little more than chattel. Hosseini skillfully develops the complexities and predicaments of his plot, which constantly intersects with political and social events in recent Afghan history.
A Thousand Splendid Suns will no doubt make an excellent film – certainly there are enough twists and turns in the narrative to keep movie-goers on the edge of their seats for two plus hours. But the events that work well on the screen do not always make for great literature. As a novel, Hosseini’s work is a cardboard set-up of stock crises, often handled in the most emotionally manipulative manner.
Except for Mariam’s parents, all of the other characters are painted in cartoonish black-and-white strokes – cardboard heroes and villains – with little depth and virtually no moments of introspection. The major figures are stock ones: the evil husband, the noble teacher, the close-minded mullah, etc., and within a few paragraphs we can already predict their every thought and action with dispiriting accuracy.
Every twenty pages or so, a jarring disaster occurs – a major character’s torso is blown across the room by a random bomb, another one languishes in a refugee camp, or suffers a terrible illness. True, the novel moves ahead at an unrelenting pace, and the plot is full of incidents, but these are piled on top of one another with all the subtlety of a soap opera storyline.
I wish I liked A Thousand Splendid Suns more. Hosseini impresses me as a caring, principled person, who has devoted his time and energy to helping the United Nations Refugee Agency, and his novel shows admirable sensitivity to the plight of women in Islamic societies. But great fiction requires more than good intentions. Hosseini closes his book with an afterword which comes across as a public service announcement for the United Nations. By all means, take his advice and give generously to his preferred charity. But if you are picking out your summer reading list, give this one a pass.