A Thousand Splendid Suns
First edition cover
|Publisher||Riverhead Books (and Simon & Schuster audio CD)|
|May 22, 2007|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback) and audio CD|
|Pages||384 pp (first edition, hardcover)|
|ISBN||978-1-59448-950-1 (first edition, hardcover)|
|LC Class||PS3608.O832 T56 2007|
A Thousand Splendid Suns is a 2007 novel by Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini. It is his second, following his bestselling 2003 debut, The Kite Runner. Mariam is an illegitimate child, and suffers from both the stigma surrounding her birth along with the abuse she faces throughout her marriage. Laila, born a generation later, is comparatively privileged during her youth until their lives intersect and she is also forced to accept a marriage proposal from Rasheed, Mariam's husband.
Hosseini has remarked that he regards the novel as a "mother-daughter story" in contrast to The Kite Runner, which he considers a "father-son story". It continues some of the themes used in his previous work, such as the familial aspects, but focuses primarily on female characters and their roles in Afghan society.
A Thousand Splendid Suns was released on May 22, 2007, and received favorable prepublication reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Booklist, becoming a number one New York Times bestseller for fifteen weeks following its release. During its first week on the market, it sold over one million copies. Columbia Pictures purchased film rights in 2007 and confirmed intentions to create a movie adaption of the book.
- "Every street of Kabul is enthralling to the eye
- Through the bazaars, caravans of Egypt pass
- One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs
- And the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls"
In an interview, Khaled Hosseini explains, "I was searching for English translations of poems about Kabul, for use in a scene where a character bemoans leaving his beloved city, when I found this particular verse. I realized that I had found not only the right line for the scene, but also an evocative title in the phrase 'a thousand splendid suns,' which appears in the next-to-last stanza."
When asked what led him to write a novel centered on two Afghan women, Hosseini responded:
"I had been entertaining the idea of writing a story of Afghan women for some time after I'd finished writing The Kite Runner. That first novel was a male-dominated story. All the major characters, except perhaps for Amir's wife Soraya, were men. There was a whole facet of Afghan society which I hadn't touched on in The Kite Runner, an entire landscape that I felt was fertile with story ideas...In the spring of 2003, I went to Kabul, and I recall seeing these burqa-clad women sitting at street corners, with four, five, six children, begging for change. I remember watching them walking in pairs up the street, trailed by their children in ragged clothes, and wondering how life had brought them to that point...I spoke to many of those women in Kabul. Their life stories were truly heartbreaking...When I began writing A Thousand Splendid Suns, I found myself thinking about those resilient women over and over. Though no one woman that I met in Kabul inspired either Laila or Mariam, their voices, faces, and their incredible stories of survival were always with me, and a good part of my inspiration for this novel came from their collective spirit."
Hosseini disclosed that in some ways, A Thousand Splendid Suns was more difficult to write than his first novel, The Kite Runner. This is partly because when he penned The Kite Runner, "no one was waiting for it." He also found his second novel to be more "ambitious" than the first due to its larger number of characters, its dual focus on Mariam and Laila, and its covering of a multi-generational-period of nearly forty-five-years. However, he stated, "As I began to write, as the story picked up pace and I found myself immersed in the world of Mariam and Laila, these apprehensions vanished on their own. The developing story captured me and enabled me to tune out the background noise and get on with the business of inhabiting the world I was creating." The characters "took on a life of their own" at this point and "became very real for [him]".
Similar to The Kite Runner, the manuscript had to be extensively revised; Hosseini divulged that he ultimately wrote the book five times before it was complete. The novel's anticipated release was first announced in October 2006, when it was described as a story about "family, friendship, faith and the salvation to be found in love".
Mariam, an Afghani woman, remembers her mother calling her a harami when she was five years old — although it is many years later before she learns the word means "bastard child." Before Mariam's birth, her mother, Nana, was a housekeeper for a wealthy businessman in Herat named Jalil. Jalil impregnates Nana, and she and Mariam live in a kolba (small cottage) outside of the town. As a girl, Miriam loves Thursday visits from Jalil, who tells her stories of Herat, although she never visits the city and her mother takes pains to remind the growing girl that her father brings her only stories, none of the wealth Jalil describes to her.
As Mariam grows older, she learns her father has three wives and nine legitimate children. However, Mariam's love for Jalil does not diminish, even after she learns he banished her mother after their affair resulted in a pregnancy. Nana, a bitter woman, frequently reminds Mariam of her father's abandonment, and is upset that Jalil placed the blame on her as if he had no part in their affair.
While Chapter 1 is brief, it provides us with important background information about three main characters and establishes symbolism as a means of foreshadowing. Mariam and her parents, Nana and Jalil, are positioned as central to the narrative of the novel's first section. Mariam is depicted as a loving, thoughtful child, who is happy for the brief time she has with her father and does not resent his long absences the way Nana does. Mariam's loving nature is challenged by Nana, who yells at the five-year-old and calls her a bastard when she accidentally breaks a favorite sugar bowl. Nana also warns her that "a man's accusing finger always finds a woman," establishing that Nana does not accept the blame for her affair with Jalil and resents the way it changed her life — from living in a wealthy urban setting as a housekeeper to an isolated life with a young daughter. Between these two women is Jalil, whose true character is difficult to determine as he is seen only through the biased eyes of Mariam and Nana. To Mariam, he is the loving father who relieves the monotony of life with his weekly visits; to Nana he is the coward who would not stand by her after getting her pregnant. Both women, however, acknowledge he is powerful and wealthy and that he is able to use his power for or against them as he sees fit.
Chapter 1 familiarizes the reader with Hosseini's style. The narrative, which takes place in Afghanistan, is speckled with Afghani phrases that only sometimes are directly defined. For instance, the reader is introduced to the word "harami" several paragraphs before its definition — "bastard" — is provided. Other words, such as kolba and jinn are left for the reader to determine via contextual clues. The use of these terms not only establishes setting, but also signifies that some things cannot be translated. For instance, when Mariam expresses fear that the "jinn" has returned to her mother, the reader must rely on the context — Mariam is being punished for breaking the sugar bowl — to understand that jinn is something uncontrollable that comes over Nana. However, by not translating it, jinn retains a certain mystery and power that seems appropriate: as a child, Mariam is not sure how or why the jinn enters her mother just as the English-speaking reader is not sure to what sort of feeling or condition the word refers.
Finally, the central action of the chapter, Mariam's over-eager breaking of the sugar bowl, provides symbolic foreshadowing for the rest of the book. The sugar bowl, part of Nana's prized tea set, features a dragon on its side, "meant to ward off evil." The loss of the protective dragon suggests that Mariam and Nana will have to deal unforeseen hardships.
- Mariam is an ethnic Tajik born in Herat, 1959. She is the illegitimate child of Jalil and Nana. She suffers shame throughout her childhood because of the circumstances of her birth. Khaled Hosseini described her portrayal: "The key word with Mariam is that she is isolated in every sense of the word. She is a woman who is detached from the day-to-day norms of human existence. Really, she just wants connection with another human being." Despite initially resenting Laila, she becomes a "friend and a doting alternative mother" to her through the "common hardship" of being married to the "abusive, psychologically imposing" Rasheed.
- Laila is an ethnic Tajik. Born in 1978, to Hakim and Fariba, she is a beautiful and intelligent girl coming from a family in which the father is university-educated and a teacher. Hosseini states that compared to Mariam, Laila "had a much more fulfilling relationship with her father, her girlfriends and her childhood friend, Tariq. She expected to finish school and is looking for personal fulfillment. These are two very different representations of women." Her life becomes tied to Mariam's when she becomes the second wife of Rasheed, Mariam's husband. This originally draws resentment from Mariam, who "[feels] her territory infringed upon". Despite this, "Laila becomes her daughter for all practical purposes" due to Mariam's childlessness, struggles,and abuse they both face during the marriage. Towards the end of the novel she becomes a schoolteacher at the orphanage where Aziza had stayed.
- Rasheed is an ethnic Pashtun, a shoemaker, and the antagonist of the novel. He marries Mariam through an arrangement with Jalil, and later marries Laila as well. After suffering years of domestic abuse at his hands, Mariam bludgeons Rasheed to death with a shovel during a violent struggle. Hosseini stated that he hoped to create a multi-layered character in Rasheed, saying, "Rasheed's the embodiment of the patriarchal, tribal character. In writing him, I didn't want to write him as an irredeemable villain. He is a reprehensible person, but there are moments of humanity, such as his love for his son." He identified an encounter with an Afghan man four years earlier as the foundation for this character; the man "had a very sweet, subservient wife" and had not yet informed her that he was planning to marry again.
- Tariq, an ethnic Pashtun born in 1976, is a boy who grew up in Kabul with Laila. He lost a leg to a land mine at the age of five. They eventually evolve from best friends to lovers; after a decade of separation they are married and expecting a child by the end of the novel.
- Nana is Mariam's mother and a former servant of Jalil. Mariam's birth is the result of an affair between Nana and Jalil. Jalil's favoritism towards his wives and legitimate children leaves Nana bitter towards Jalil. She hangs herself when Mariam is fifteen after Mariam journeys to Jalil's house on her birthday. Nana perceives this to be betrayal and regards as an act of desertion.
- Mullah Faizullah, a Sufi, is Mariam's elderly Koran teacher and friend. He dies of natural causes in 1989.
- Jalil is Mariam's father, a wealthy man who had three wives before he fathered Mariam. He marries Mariam to Rasheed after Nana's death, but later regrets sending her away. He dies in 1987.
- Hakim is Laila's father. He is a well-educated and a progressive schoolteacher. He is killed in a rocket explosion along with Fariba.
- Fariba is Laila's mother. In Part One, during her brief meeting with Mariam, she is depicted as cheerful, but her happy nature is disrupted when her two sons, Ahmad and Noor, leave home to go to war and are later killed. She spends nearly all of her time in bed mourning her sons until the Mujahideen are victorious, and is later killed in a rocket explosion along with Hakim.
- Aziza, born in the spring of 1993, is the daughter of Laila and Tariq, conceived when Laila was fourteen. When the news of Tariq's alleged death arrives, in order to hide the child's illegitimacy and provide for herself, Laila decides to marry Rasheed. Aziza's birth marks the beginning of Laila's fall from favor with Rasheed and the friendship between Mariam and Laila.
- Zalmai, born in September 1997, to Laila and Rasheed. He serves as a redeeming facet of Rasheed, idolizing him despite the abuse to his mother and Mariam. Zalmai remains unaware of the fact that Mariam killed Rasheed and continuously asks Laila about him, who lies by saying that he simply left for some time. After initially blaming Tariq for his father's mysterious disappearance, he comes to accept Tariq as a father-figure.
When asked about common themes in The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini replied:
"Both novels are multigenerational, and so the relationship between parent and child, with all of its manifest complexities and contradictions, is a prominent theme. I did not intend this, but I am keenly interested, it appears, in the way parents and children love, disappoint, and in the end honor each other. In one way, the two novels are corollaries: The Kite Runner was a father-son story, and A Thousand Splendid Suns can be seen as a mother-daughter story."
He ultimately considers both novels to be "love stories" in that it is love that "draws characters out of their isolation, that gives them the strength to transcend their own limitations, to expose their vulnerabilities, and to perform devastating acts of self-sacrifice".
Women in Afghanistan
Hosseini visited Afghanistan in 2003, and "heard so many stories about what happened to women, the tragedies that they had endured, the difficulties, the gender-based violence that they had suffered, the discrimination, the being barred from active life during the Taliban, having their movement restricted, being banned essentially from practicing their legal, social rights, political rights". This motivated him to write a novel centered on two Afghan women.
Washington Post writer Jonathan Yardley suggests that "the central theme of A Thousand Splendid Suns is the place of women in Afghan society", pointing to a passage in which Mariam's mother states, "Learn this now and learn it well, my daughter: Like a compass needle that points north, a man's accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam."
In the book, both Mariam and Laila are forced into accepting a marriage to Rasheed, who requires them to wear a burqa before it is implemented by law under the Taliban. He later becomes increasingly abusive. A Riverhead Trades Weekly review states that the novel consistently shows the "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."
In the first week following its release, A Thousand Splendid Suns sold over one million copies, becoming a number-one New York Times bestseller for fifteen weeks. Time magazine's Lev Grossman placed it at number three in the Top 10 Fiction Books of 2007, and praised it as a "dense, rich, pressure-packed guide to enduring the unendurable." Jonathan Yardley said in the Washington Post "Book World", "Just in case you're wondering whether Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns is as good as The Kite Runner, here's the answer: No. It's better."
A Thousand Splendid Suns received significant praise from reviewers, with Publishers Weekly calling it "a powerful, harrowing depiction of Afghanistan" and USA Today describing the prose as "achingly beautiful". Lisa See of The New York Times attributed the book's success to Hosseini "[understanding] the power of emotion as few other popular writers do". Natasha Walter from The Guardian wrote, "Hosseini is skilled at telling a certain kind of story, in which events that may seem unbearable - violence, misery and abuse - are made readable. He doesn't gloss over the horrors his characters live through, but something about his direct, explanatory style and the sense that you are moving towards a redemptive ending makes the whole narrative, for all its tragedies, slip down rather easily."
Cathleen Medwick gave the novel a highly positive review in O, the Oprah Magazine:
"Love may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you consider the war-ravaged landscape of Afghanistan. But that is the emotion—subterranean, powerful, beautiful, illicit, and infinitely patient—that suffuses the pages of Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns. As in his best-selling first novel, The Kite Runner, Hosseini movingly examines the connections between unlikely friends, the fissures that open up between parents and children, the intransigence of quiet hearts."
The New York Times writer Michiko Kakutani wrote a more critical review, describing the opening as "heavy-handed" and early events in the novel as "soap-opera-ish". Despite these objections, she concluded, "Gradually, however, Mr. Hosseini's instinctive storytelling skills take over, mowing down the reader's objections through sheer momentum and will. He succeeds in making the emotional reality of Mariam and Laila's lives tangible to us, and by conjuring their day-to-day routines, he is able to give us a sense of what daily life was like in Kabul — both before and during the harsh reign of the Taliban." Similarly, Yvonne Zipp of The Christian Science Monitor concluded that A Thousand Splendid Suns was ultimately "a little shaky as a work of literature".
The depictions of the lead female characters, Mariam and Laila, were praised by several commentators. John Freeman from The Houston Chronicle found them "enormously winning" while Carol Memmott from USA Today further described them as "stunningly heroic characters whose spirits somehow grasp the dimmest rays of hope". Medwick summed up the portrayals: "Mariam, branded as a harami, or bastard, and forced into an abusive marriage at the age of fifteen, and Laila, a beauty groomed for success but shrouded almost beyond recognition by repressive sharia law and the husband she and Mariam share. The story, epic in scope and spanning three decades, follows these two indomitable women whose fortunes mirror those of their beloved and battered country—'nothing pretty to look at, but still standing'—and who find in each other the strength they need to survive."
Jennifer Reese from Entertainment Weekly dubbed Rasheed "one of the most repulsive males in recent literature". Lisa See said that, with the exception of Tariq, "the male characters seem either unrelentingly evil or pathetically weak" and opinionated, "If a woman wrote these things about her male characters, she would probably be labeled a man-hater."
Columbia Pictures owns the movie rights to the novel. Steven Zaillian finished writing the first draft of the screenplay in 2009 and is also slated to direct; Scott Rudin has signed on as a producer. In May 2013, studios confirmed a tentative release date of 2015.
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