It seems a dull kind of recommendation, but I cried terribly while reading this book. Moreover, I actually held my breath at some points, not daring to move or make a sound for fear of what should happen to the characters. The story isn’t sweet, or comforting, or funny, but it is so, so beautiful.
A little girl, Mariam, grows up in a remote cabin in sixties’ Afghanistan, living with her manipulative mother. The two are shunned by the inhabitants of a nearby town: Mariam is a harami, the bastard child of a rich businessman, Jalil. At just fifteen years old, she is married off by Jalil to a middle-aged man who lives in the capital: Kabul. Torn away from her little cabin, she has to grow up in her new house, at the same time performing her duties as a wife for the harsh and demanding Rasheed. She is both afraid of and dependent on her husband, craving his sporadic attentions and dreading his contempt. As years go by and Mariam can’t give Rasheed the sons that he wanted from the marriage, he becomes more and more abusive and even cruel.
The story then shifts to follow the growing up of another little girl, who made an entirely different start in life. Born in Kabul on the night of the communist april coup of 1978, Laila’s life is intertwined with the history of her country from the start. Her parents are kind, supportive people: her mother is very practical and her father, an academic, anything but. They argue a lot because of their worries about Laila’s brothers, who are at the front, fighting the faraway war against the communists. But Laila loves her parents very much and is well taken care of. She enjoys going to school and spending time with her girlfriends or her best friend, Tariq, an exuberant crippled boy.
Mariam and Laila are thrown together in a violently shocking and heartbreaking way when the civil war comes to Kabul, bringing death and devastation with it. The pain the two young women endure is trumped only by the strong bond they develop, as one does, over tea. Humiliation and fear, disempowerment and dependency in their most infuriating forms are put to shame by the quiet defiance of two women, whose eyes seem to shimmer all the brighter from behind their burqa’s: Khaled Hosseini creates women characters of immeasurable strength.
Mariam’s keen interest in learning, from simple sums to world affairs, is consistently rebuked by people who believe a girl, especially a harami, doesn’t need to be educated. When she asks Rasheed what a ‘communist’ is, he laughs at her for being so ignorant that she doesn’t even know such a common term. He then refuses to explain, making it very clear that he doesn’t know what a communist is either. But when she is older, Mariam focuses all that undeveloped intelligence on Laila and her small children. What she was denied herself, she doesn’t begrudge the younger woman and she gives all that is in her power in order to ensure a future for Laila, protecting the girl and overcoming her own fears. Laila makes hard choices also, but it is Mariam who leaves you in astonishment through her unselfishness.
This, in my opinion, makes for a better ‘strong woman’ than characters who show no vulnerability, who take the lead and play the hero. Mariam fits no stereotype: she is insecure, jealous, and scared. The strength she finds throughout her life doesn’t come from a desire to do the noble thing, but rather from intuition and instinctive love, even though she hasn’t had the best role models. Laila isn’t perfect either: she can be childish (though to be fair, she is a child for most of the book), and quick-tempered at all the wrong moments. Even Rasheed, mostly a brute, has his tender moments, just like Laila’s parents, who are mostly likeable, can be weak and mean.
People seem to love or hate this book. If they propagate the last sentiment, they usually point out that a few flaws don’t make a well-rounded character. This is true, but I think they expect a more explicit kind of storytelling than Khaled Hosseini practices. This is not a book in which characters make very distinct right or wrong choices. Often a ‘three-dimensional character’ is expected to have a combination of good and bad, like a murderess who loves her wife or a wise general who lies about his feelings to the people he holds dear. But real people also have characteristics that are neither good nor bad, or a bit of both. This book focuses on those characteristics: it shows the main characters’ actions, words and thoughts without much interpretation. Therefore the amount of times that a sympathetic character does something clearly bad, or an unlikable character does something strikingly good, are scarce.
The same goes for the book’s treatment of situations and cultural practices. Khaled Hosseini describes patiently the many ambiguous scenes that make up real life. For instance, Mariam, bewildered and scared in her new home town, is surprised by the comfort she takes in the burqa that Rasheed orders her to wear. It allows her to hide from strange faces in the street and reassures her that her husband cares about her honour. At the same time, she doesn’t have a choice in wearing the garment and her husband is actually the person who scares her the most out of everyone. She is even more confused when she finds a porn magazine in Rasheed’s room. She can’t reconcile her husband’s concern for her honour with his interest in the naked women on the pictures.
The book is truly a wonder of storytelling. As the story unfolds, Khaled Hosseini colours the country, and especially the city with its different districts, the women baking bread at the communal tandoor (clay oven), the smell of green tea with cardamom. An unknown place stops being exotic or fairytale-like once it becomes real to a person, and this book makes Afghanistan all too real. National and even global developments are brought back to simple, almost small life stories of ordinary people. Through them it becomes clear that Afghanistan is broken but not shattered, ailing but far from dead. On the contrary: it brims with life under the rusted cover of the violence and successive terror reigns.
Book dedication award for: “This book is dedicated to Haris and Farah, both the noor [light] of my eyes, and to the women of Afghanistan.”
Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns (New York, 2007)