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Friday, July 20, 2007


Pages: 367
Price: US$18
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Year: May 2007

Parallel lives. One in a kolba, a rambling little shack in the fictional Afghan village of Gul Daman, another in capital Kabul. Love, friendship, betrayal and boys. Khaled Hosseini told us that tale in The Kite Runner.

This time he returns to his familiar setting, albeit with very different characters. It is a study of the human condition, of resilience, of love when all is lost and it is told through Mariam and Laila. Two women from two entirely different worlds. Mariam is the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy cinema owner in Herat. It's a fact her mother never lets her forget. She is told the day she walks out of the kolba, her heart-broken mother will be dead. Rules are meant to be broken, Mariam does it in search of perfect paternal love. When she gets a disappointing taste of the real world, her mother is dead and life as she has known it ends for Mariam. She barely has time to come to grips with what's happening around her. Before she knows it, her father's family has got rid of her by hurriedly marrying her off to the much older and widowed Rasheed and packed her off to Kabul.

Mariam sees her world fall apart several times. The day she realises, her father wouldn't own her, the day she loses her mother, the day she becomes pregnant and loses her child. The cycle of loss keeps repeating itself when she knows she can never be a mother again. By the time the war is upon them, Rasheed has lost all interest in her and Mariam's spirit has been fully crushed. Till Laila arrives.

Unlike Mariam, Laila is a legitimate child. Babi, her father has insisted on giving her an education and she hasn't disappointed:
I know you're still young, but I want you to understand and learn this now, he said. Marriage can wait, education cannot. You're a very, very bright girl. Truly, you are. You can be anything you want, Laila. I know this about you. And I also know that when this war is over, Afghanistan is going to need you as much as its men, maybe even more. Because a society has no chance of success if its women are uneducated, Laila. No chance.

So Babi believed before the war transformed the entire landscape. Laila lost her brothers, her mother lost her sanity and when they eventually decided to pack their bags and leave for Pakistan where she hopes to reunite with the love of her life - Tariq, it's all a little too late. A bomb shatters their house, her parents are killed instantly and a badly injured Laila is pulled out of the rubble of her home by Rasheed.

With that, the various strings that bind this novel so adeptly come together. I like the way Hosseini keeps you guessing, the way he gets into the skin of his characters to capture every little nuance. One of the lines that's stayed in my head is the one which shows Laila and Mariam accepting their fate and bringing themselves to terms with being Rasheed's wives.

An unguarded unknowing look. And in this fleeting, wordless exchange with Mariam, Laila knew that they were not enemies any longer.

With that the novel takes on a whole new spin. Once the enmity is forgotten, new truths are discovered. On the one hand, Hosseini captures their lives in the house and in another broad sweep you get glimpses of an Afghanistan rapidly falling apart.

Spanning from the 1970s to 2003, A Thousand Splendid Suns, is a window to Afghanistan starting with the good years, the Soviet occupation, to the rise of the Taliban and eventually into its conversion into a war zone. It's a tough job and for that one couldn't have asked for a better narrator than Hosseini.

To some the novel may sound overly sentimental, but when a war transforms a human landscape, there are bound to be tears. Hosseini knows that.

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