“On the journey towards the beloved, you live by dying at every step” ― Nadeem Aslam

Devastatingly beautiful.

A Thousand Splendid Suns ― Khaled Hosseini


‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ was published in 2007 by Afghan-American novelist Khaled Hosseini. If you haven’t heard of this book, you might be familiar with his first novel, ‘The Kite Runner’, a best seller back in 2000. I never read The Kite Runner, and only happened upon A Thousand Splendid Suns because a friend recommended it to me, and after reading it, I’m finding it slightly difficult not to run out and buy The Kite Runner right now, if it is anywhere near as beautiful as A Thousand Splendid Suns I know it will be money well spent.

Hosseini takes the name of this novel from an excerpt in the poem Kabul by 17th century Afghani poet Saib-e-Tabrizi. The title seems to fit the novel perfectly, especially when one reads excerpts from the poem itself. The poem describes the beloved city Kabul, a Kabul which is not present throughout the majority of the book, but lives on in the hearts of the citizens of the city:

One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs
And the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls

The novel is written in three parts, and follows the life of two Afghani women, Mariam, the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Herati gentleman, and Laila, 19 years Miriam’s junior, born 500 miles from Herat in the city of Kabul, into a humble, but loving family. Hosseini follows the two women, tracing a story in which these two very distinct characters, who have had such different starts in life, find their lives intertwined, and discover in one another an unlikely and beautiful companion.

Hosseini begins with Mariam, a young girl growing up in the 1960s on the outskirts of Herat, a small city in Afghanistan. Mariam resides with her mother, Nana, a spiteful, epileptic woman, who was once employed as a servant in the house of her father, Jalil. Hosseini writes of how Mariam dotes on her father, living for the time once a week when he will visit her, his only illegitimate child. However, Mariam soon discovers the shame that she brings upon her father, and at the age of just 16, she is forced into marrying Rasheed, a 45 year old a widower, far away in the city of Kabul.

As someone very far removed from the lives of women like Mariam it was incredibly moving to read Mariam’s thoughts when she realised that her father, the man she had been so infatuated with, was ashamed of her, that his whole family was ashamed of her. The devastating discovery that “she was being sent away because she was the walking, breathing embodiment of their shame”. The injustice of Mariam’s situation made me feel so angry, I wanted desperately to have her turn around and refuse to leave, to refuse the future they had condemned her to. But of course a woman such as Mariam has no choice in these matters.

At first, the life which Mariam is introduced to doesn’t seem too terrible. Rasheed treats her well, and buys her gifts. Mariam recounts with pride the secret married glances they exchange out in the streets, and even feels flattered by Rasheed’s insistence that she wears a burkha. Unfortunately for Mariam this innocent happiness is short lived, and when Rasheed discovers that Mariam cannot fulfil a wife’s duties he begins to abuse her both physically and verbally.

In the second part of the book Hosseini introduces the reader to a very different family, in a house down the street from Rasheed and Mariam. Laila is the only daughter of a loving family, born into a secure home, full of hope and love. However, the beginning of the Afghani war against the soviets puts a swift end to Laila’s innocent childhood, and when both her older brothers leave to join the fight, Laila learns that her future is no match for her brothers’ past. Intelligent, beautiful and ambitious, Laila is different from the other girls her age; she seems to have greater things in stock for her than an arranged marriage and the life of a housewife. Therefore it comes as somewhat of a shock when Laila suddenly finds herself without her family, and faced with the prospect of lasting out on the streets on her own. This leads her to make the devastating decision to become Rasheed’s second wife.

It takes until the third and final section of the book for the relationship between Mariam and Laila, of which the story itself surrounds, to fully come out. Initially, Mariam is threatened by the presence of a new wife in her home and she refuses to have anything to do Laila. That is until Laila gives birth to her first child, Aziza, and an innocent, wholesome presence in the house softens the ground between the two women:

“…she marvelled at how, after all these years of rattling loose, she had found in this little creature the first true connection in her life of false, failed connections.”

Gradually they begin to see each other not as rivals, but as allies against Rasheed’s abusive, manipulative ways:

“For the first time, it was not an adversary’s face Laila saw but a face of grievances unspoken, burdens gone unprotested, a destiny submitted to and endured.”

These women ultimately realise that they need something to hold onto, and that their only one hope of finding any warmth and solidarity, was in the arms of one another.

While Mariam and Laila cannot escape from the cruelty and injustice which surround their lives, they cope with their situation by finding hope in one another, supporting each other like pair of crutches. The injustice faced by the women is astounding, and as laws forbid Afghani women from running away, there is little hope for the women; even the authorities routinely turn a blind eye to violence at the hands of a husband, because “What goes on in man’s house is his own business”. Again, read through the eyes of a very different world, it is almost inconceivable to imagine what goes on in the life of these women. And more than anything remarkable and beautiful that in spite of everything, Laila and Mariam maintain hope by clinging to the love they have for one another, finding in each other the strength to carry on.

The bond which Laila and Marian share gives real beauty to Hosseini’s work. Although the premise of the story itself is tragic, the love, care and compassion that exists in spite of all this is incredibly heart-warming. They are dependent, both physically, and emotionally, on one another, and they survive, in spite of everything by putting their faith in their love for one another.

Hosseini adds an historical aspect to the novel, without making the history overwhelming. Although there are sections of the text dedicated to the war raging within Afghanistan, it is the way the war affects the lives of the Afghanis that stands out beyond anything else. Hosseini is successful in making the novel historically accurate, without weighing it down like a historical text book. At the same time, although the story itself is fictitious, and Laila and Mariam are not the names of characters that really lived, the plight of women living in Afghanistan is only too real. I find the creation of fictional characters to express real events to be very effective at evoking feeling in the reader. When I read a book I often feel that I connect with the characters on a very personal level, and the empathy I feel towards the character is somehow far greater than that towards real people who I have read about through historical texts.

Ultimately, A Thousand Splendid Suns is more than just the story of Mariam and Laila’s friendship. It is the story of Afghanistan, and of the Afghani people. Hosseini is concerned with conveying the effect that living in such as society has had, not just on the women, but on everyone.

Is this a hearty welcome, or a Hardy welcome?

Blogging seems to be all the rage these days, so I’ve decided to jump on board the band wagon. After all, who doesn’t enjoy talking about themselves? I’m not so vain as to think many people will be particularly interested in my chattering away about nothing though – I do think blogs are more interesting when they are about something, rather than everything. My ‘something’ will be the books I read. I like to read, but I am by no means a connoisseur of fine literature. I will blog about the books I feel like reading, rather than reading books purely for the sake of blogging about them, so I’m terribly sorry if my reviews are grossly behind the time and irrelevant. Furthermore I refuse to rate anything out of ten, the idea that all my thoughts and emotions relating to a book can be summed up in such a small scale is, frankly, ridiculous.

So on to the first book of many.

Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy

Jude The ObscureI will admit that I have never really given Hardy the time of day before now ― due to a very bad experience of far too many hours spent listening to the audio book of ‘Return of the Native’ read by Alan Rickman, thanks to the incompetence of my sixth form English literature teacher. A friend of mine recently read Jude and told me it was “the most depressing book ever” naturally I was intrigued so thought I would give Hardy a second chance – I’m glad I did, although I can’t really say I enjoyed reading it.

I have never come across a character in my reading quite as unlucky as Jude Fawley, and that is to put it lightly. Poor Jude has from a young age, dreamt of travelling to the nearby town of Christminster and pursuing the life on an academic, but Hardy places so many road blocks along the way that Jude’s journey seems doomed to fail. Hardy goes far beyond making Jude’s character merely unfortunate, gifting to him a life filled with little other than misery and pain.  The chronicle of Jude’s life seems to me so depressing that it becomes almost completely farcical. While I am fully aware that Jude’s life is one to be pitied, I find myself more inclined to have a laugh at his expense, as his life gets ever more ridiculous.

For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of reading this book I will elaborate.  Jude has a very humble background, and was raised for the most part by his elderly Aunt, a bitter, cynical old lady, who tried in vain to convince Jude that the Fawley family are not meant for marriage.  Despite this Jude is quickly trapped by local girl Arabella, who tricks him into marriage, which seemingly makes Jude’s dreams of becoming a scholar a distant memory. However, when the marriage inevitably falls apart and Arabella leaves the country it seems almost possible that Jude may have a second chance at happiness. I was too easily fooled by this first part of the book, Hardy continually lays these traps, luring the reader into thinking that things could be ok for Jude after all.

Eventually Jude does find himself in Christminster and once again has high hopes of somehow securing a place in the colleges; however he is inevitably rejected by all the institutions, and somehow find the time to fall hopelessly in love with his cousin Susan Brideshead in the process, whom of course he cannot marry being already wed to another. In true Jude style, Arabella asks for a divorce, just in time for Sue to get married. When Sue finally decides she wants to be with Jude and asks to be released from her marriage it seems just a bit too good to be true.

Of course it really would be asking too much for Jude to have any sort of luck, and so he soon finds out he has a son from his first marriage. Refusing to let this dampen their spirits the couple decide to raise the child – known as ‘Little Father Time’- as their own. This inevitably leads to their being shunned by society for living together out of wedlock. Jude and Sue decide to leave the area completely, in order to avoid the gossip.

When Jude and Sue return to Christminster a few years later, after pretending to tie the knot, and having a further two children of their own they find things little improved and are continually turned away from lodgings. Noticing the tension in the air Little Father Time speaks with Sue and quickly gathers that his parents are suffering because they have children, he then throws a tantrum and promises to never forgive Sue upon finding out that there is another child on the way. The next morning Jude and Sue find all three children hanging dead in their bedroom, Little Father Time having killed both his younger siblings and then himself – leaving behind the note ‘because we were too menny’. The devastation of losing her children leads Sue to lose the baby she is carrying. Sue then leaves Jude, returning to her first husband, as she feels that the death of her children was a punishment for her having done wrong in her first marriage.

Alone and miserable Jude is somehow once again tricked into marrying Arabella. By this stages Jude’s health is declining rapidly, he soon becomes bed ridden and is of little interest to Arabella. When Jude inevitably dies, he is on his own, pleading for a glass of water. Once discovered by Arabella the death is temporarily covered up, so as to not inconvenience Arabella’s social plans. Jude’s funeral is a dismal event, of which Sue does not attend.

My thoughts upon finishing this book are mixed. I am satisfied that what started out as an incredibly depressing story did not somehow end up having a fantastical and unbelievable happy ending. However as I have said before the extent to which Hardy attempts to make the story one of woe does seem to go a bit too far. The idea that any one person could be quite as unlucky as Jude Fawley does make me laugh (Hardy ha ha), it seems so detached from reality.  I also found myself really disliking most of the characters, which I feel in some ways made the book more enjoyable. Sue is the most annoying creature I have ever experienced. Sue’s character has moments of such fantastic clarity and insight, expressing her thoughts so brilliantly, but for every one of these there are at least a dozen irritating sessions in which she is seen to cry, continually change her point of view and attitude, and ultimately behave like a complete swine to her husband Mr Phillotson –who is in turn annoyingly accepting and far too nice for his own good. Jude’s character is not only unlucky, but also so intolerably needy, and so incredibly weak willed (what sort of a man gets tricked into a marriage, twice?!). Despite being quite an unpleasant character, it seems to me that the only one of group with an ounce of strength in her is Arabella, she is manipulative and cruel, but ultimately she gets what she wants, and is the only person who ends up being anything close to happy.