A Thousand Splendid Suns
Disappointing. There, I’ve said it. Regular readers of this blog know I’m a big fan of The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini’s first novel, and that I was really looking forward to his second one. Like The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns is a window into the history, politics, and people of Afghanistan. Also like his first novel, this plot is believable and moving, these characters empathetic. But when it comes to creative execution, I was disappointed to find that the comparisons stop there.
A Thousand Splendid Suns is the story of two Afghan women, Mariam and Laila, who grow up in different circumstances with different ambitions, but thanks to civil war and then the terrors of the Taliban, end up as the two wives of a cruel shoemaker in Kabul. Rivals at first, they eventually form an alliance that develops into a deep friendship. Armed with nothing but their determination, each makes sacrifices for their survival and that of their beloved children.
The story has great potential, but the flaw of the work appears to be haste. There are plenty of interesting characters and climatic scenes, but they feel cobbled together, polished sections connected by clunky transitions. The historical setting is obviously crucial to the plot, but Hosseini overdoes it with awkward phrases like “that August of 1992” and “January of that year”; why not just “that August” or “January,” since he had already noted which year, and punctuated it with historical events still plenty fresh in our memory? Several foreshadowings of the plot reveal just a bit too much to maintain suspense. There are odd little references to Hemingway which never turn into anything. The chapter headings aren’t parallel; sometimes they identify a date, a place, or a perspective, and other times there is no heading at all. In other words, this is a solid draft that, set aside for awhile and then returned to with the aid of a good editor, could have been a really remarkable novel. Instead, I kept getting the feeling that he (or his editor) rushed to meet a publication deadline.
And I was surprised to find it preachy. The Kite Runner made moral judgments about the destructiveness of racism and the power of forgiveness and sacrificial love. But it did so by walking us through the lessons as the characters learned them. Dissimilarly, A Thousand Splendid Suns seems less a story that had to be told and more an agenda that needed names and faces. The first novel was written by an immigrant grieved by the destruction of his country and the world’s misunderstanding; the second novel was written by a charity spokesman using his craft to drum up support. This is not to knock his UN work; I applaud his commitment to helping refugees rebuild their lives, and there is no reason a best-selling novelist shouldn’t be involved. My point is simply that when it comes to writing, by all means take the inspiration from your refugee work or whatever your real life presents, and then make it your first priority to let that story speak for itself. I wanted Mariam’s and Laila’s tragic stories to move me to greater concern for political refugees because Hosseini gave me an undeniably human portrait of those refugees, not because he told me in the Afterword that I should go to the UN’s website to learn more about their plight.
So I love the idea of this novel, the voice that Hosseini gives to the oppressed but strong and sometimes victorious women of Afghanistan. But it just doesn’t have the coherence and passion his first novel did. Still, don’t let a negative review of this one keep you from reading The Kite Runner, which remains on my top 10 list. And if you were at all disappointed with A Thousand Splendid Suns, like I was, let’s not give up on Hosseini as a novelist. I can’t imagine how hard it is for a novelist to top his own #1 bestselling debut. And I predict that if he studies both the successes of his first book and the constructive criticisms of his second, his third novel may be the best one yet.