Or the thousand splendid suns that hide between her walls.'
So Laila, heroine of Khaled Hosseini’s new novel A Thousand Splendid Suns, is told by her father about Kabul. The story tells of two women’s intertwined lives: Laila, who is the beautiful daughter of one of Kabul’s academics, thrown out of his teaching position by the communists, and Mariam, a harami, or bastard child of a rich Herat resident, who lives with her shamed mother in a mud hut on the outskirts of town. That is until her mother hangs herself, and Mariam is married off to the violent and toad-like Rasheed, shoemaker of Kabul and over twice her age, with watery, bloodshot eyes and nails ‘yellow brown, like the inside of a rotting apple’.
When, at the height of civil war, Laila’s parents are killed by a stray rocket, Laila is found by Rasheed in the rubble, and made a second wife. Initially, Mariam, shamed by her inability to give birth to Rasheed’s children, and consequently object of his profound scorn, is resentful towards the new addition to the family, but as Rasheed’s violence turns against both wives the two forge a deep alliance. Eventually Mariam finds in Laila and in Laila’s children a love and human connection that she had found nowhere else in her life.
Although the novel is a good read and the characters are vivid and well-painted, Mariam was the one who really caught my interest, with a psychological depth the others lacked. The novel begins with a pronouncement of her worthlessness in Afghan society; she is five years old and breaks a valuable Chinese sugar bowl. Her mother shrieks at her: ‘You are a clumy little harami. This is my reward for everything I’ve endured. A clumsy, heirloom breaking harami.’
At the time, Mariam did not understand. She did not know what the word harami – bastard – meant. Nor was she old enough to appreciate the injustice, to see that it is the creators of the harami who are culpable, not the harami, whose only sin is being born. Mariam did surmise, by the way Nana said the word, that it was an ugly, loathsome thing to be a harami, like an insect, like the scurrying cockroaches that Nana was always cursing and sweeping out of the kolba.
It is somehow this clumsiness, this tendency to break things, that burrows its way into Mariam’s soul and becomes a terrible actuality in her life; an actuality that is confirmed for the fragile teenager when she takes her own, awkward stab at freedom and tries to leave the hut, and her troubled mother hangs herself.
Bundled into an unwanted marriage, Mariam initially feels the potential for some kind of happiness, the pleasure to be found in being a wife:
He dipped his spoon into the gold coloured daal.
Mariam swayed a bit. What if he was disappointed or angry? What if he pushed his plate away in displeasure?
“Careful,” she managed to say. “It’s hot.”
Rasheed pursed his lips and blew, then put the spoon into his mouth.
“It’s good,” he said. “A little undersalted but good. Maybe better than good, even.”
Relieved, Mariam looked on as he ate. A flare of pride caught her off guard. She had done well – maybe better than good, even – and it surprised her, this thrill she felt over his small compliment.
When she conceives a child, life seems to offer her the potential for transformation:
It was as though a rainbow had melted into her eyes.
Yet somehow the reader is not surprised when, one day, Rasheed takes her to the bath house and suddenly:
There was blood, and she was screaming.
Somehow, on a symbolic level, the way society has treated, and invented, Mariam has deprived her of the ability to sustain life. She cannot grow out of being a ‘clumsy little harami’, cannot protect that most precious bundle in her womb.
After seven miscarriages, Rasheed becomes a husband who gives her nothing but ‘his scorn, his ridicule, his insults, his walking past her like she was nothing but a house cat.’ He curses her, where he once praised her, for her food, and in one of the most disturbing scenes of the novel, forces her to break her teeth on stones so that:
Now you know what your rice tastes like. Now you know what you’ve given me in this marriage. Bad food, and nothing else.
In fact, Mariam ends the book as a heroic mother. She commits murder in order to save the life of her adopted ‘daughter’. Yet she does this by killing and subsequently dying. In a society where feminine worth is so little valued, Mariam can only enact her maternal capacity through destruction; her ability for life-giving creation has been destroyed.
The other characters of the novel are less complex and less developed. The men particularly are two-dimensional. The two key male figures are Rasheed, the abusive husband, and Tariq, Laila’s childhood sweetheart and true love. Despite the fact that at the start of the marriage, Rasheed appears to have the potential to become a loving husband, he quickly descends into a fairy tale villain, with no respect for the female honour he puts so much emphasis on cherishing and protecting. We never see a struggle in Rasheed, he is simply a misogynist, while Tariq, on the other hand, is the protective, chivalrous lover. How does Tariq avoid all the misogyny, heavy in the very air he breathes, to become the perfect white knight, when for Rasheed there is no possibility of redemption and no satisfying end but Mariam’s act of manslaughter? It’s a shame Hosseini doesn’t explore in more detail the psychological effect misogyny has on Afghanistan’s men as well as on its women.
As Laila and Mariam grow from girlhood to womanhood, struggling to endure against the backdrop of Afghanistan’s recent past, we feel like we are reading an epic novel of history and place in the tradition of Salman Rushdie or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Unfortunately the characters we meet are not developed or varied enough to represent Afghanistan on an epic scale. Laila professes a deep love for her country, and Mariam is brought up with descriptons of Herat, it’s ‘green wheat fields’, ‘orchards, vines pregnant with plump grapes, the city’s crowded, vaulted bazaars.’ In Herat , once, when it was the cradle of Persian culture, ‘you couldn’t stretch a leg without poking a poet in the ass.’ Yet these brief descriptions of cultural richness and fertility are all the glimpses we get of ‘splendid suns’. The majority of the novel takes place in the kitchen of Rasheed’s house, a claustrophobic chamber of incrimination and violence.
The novel’s perspective of Afghanistan is limited, narrowed, like the view of a busy street had by a woman in a burqa. And perhaps this is the point. For where the novel is so powerful is in letting us know what life was like for a woman in late twentieth/ early twenty-first century Afghanistan. The little details that Hosseini describes are ones that will stick with you. The physical sensation of walking in a burqa:
The padded headpiece felt tight and heavy on her skull, and it was strange seeing the world through a mesh screen…The loss of peripheral vision was unnerving, and she did not like the way the pleated cloth kept pressing against her mouth.
The possibilities, if only in terms of gender equality, brought by the communists:
Khala Rangmaal…did not cover and forbade the female students from doing it. She said women and men were equal in every way and there was no reason men should cover if women didn’t.
And the true horror of the Taliban regime, where women were forbidden even basic medical care and expelled from all but one under-equipped hospital, where female doctors were given no basic drugs, not even anaesthetics for their patients, and expected to perform surgical operations while wearing a burqa. Where women, forbidden from working, were forced to give their children away to under-equipped orphanages rather than see them starve. And still the small glimpses of hope and rebellion, girls in the orphanage allowed to study, for example:
Aziza said Kaka Zaman made it a point to teach them something every day, reading and writing most days, sometimes geography, a bit of history or science, something about plants, animals. ‘But we have to pull the curtains,’ Aziza said. ‘So the Taliban don’t see us.’ Kaka Zaman had knitting needles and balls of yarn ready, she said, in case of inspection. ‘We put the books away and pretend to knit.’
All of these details are ones that will stay with you, and provide a vivid and living image of life in twenty-first century Afghanistan.
(This is my first review, so be nice ;-)