Khaled Hosseini's second novel is called `A Thousand Splendid Suns'. The title comes from a line in a 17th century Persian poem by Saeb-e-Tabrizi. The book tells the story of two Afghan women from different generations but ending up being the wives of the same man. While Hosseini's first best-selling book, The Kite Runner, is based about relationships among boys and men, his latest novel primarily relates the struggles of the fairer sex.
The opening sentence of the book reads, `Mariam was five years old the first time she heard the word harami.' It was not difficult to guess what harami meant, even though the meaning was revealed in subsequent paragraphs. In Malay, we know it as `anak haram'. In crude English it is `bastard'.
Hence begins the story of an illegitimate child who, with her mother, is sent to live as an outcast at an isolated dwelling outside her father's city. Her rich father comes to visit once each week but never makes the effort to bring her to his own house. Over the years, Mariam got curious and made the trip to the city on her own, in spite of protests from her mother. While she did find her father's big house, she did not manage to get invited inside. The experience shattered her hopes and the high regard she held for her father all this while.
Due to a turn of unfortunate circumstances, Mariam did finally get to come inside and in fact, stay at her father's house. But the respite was only brief. Her father decided to marry her off to a shoemaker from Kabul who was 20-years her senior. Mariam was only fifteen then.
The story goes on about Mariam's life as a wife in the city of Kabul during the years of the collapse of the Soviet-supported regime through to the period of infighting among the Mujahideen factions and finally during the reign of the Taliban. It was during the Mujahideen civil war period that the other Afghan girl Laila, comes into the picture. Laila became an orphan because a bomb had killed her parents. Mariam's husband had helped rescue her from the debris. Upon recovery, she ended up accepting the proposal to become the second wife. Mariam was of course, terribly upset by this but, really... what can she do? The relationship between the two wives began as enemies but as the years passed, the common mistreatment by the husband on both of them resulted in an alliance being formed.
I finished reading this book in three sittings. I liked Hosseini's fluid and smooth writing style. By smooth, I mean that there was never the need to stop reading at the end or mid-sentence, reverse and then re-read the sentence once or twice over just to understand its meaning.
Since part of the storyline is set in Afghanistan during the Taliban rule, Hosseini has included vivid descriptions about life as burqa-clad women during that period. The harsh and repressive treatment of women, in the name of religion, is very sad indeed. In any given conflict between man and woman, it is always the woman who is at fault. Surprisingly, in a postscript at the end of the novel, Hosseini clarified that this unequal treatment of women in his country was existent well before the Taliban took power.
Perhaps to sum up the situation, I quote the following words that Mariam's mother gave her as advice, `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.'
`A Thousand Splendid Suns' is a really good book. Recommended.