Book Review: A Thousand Splendid Suns

This column, which ran on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum, is written with gratitude to Gene Hewitt, who gave me both of Khaled Hosseini’s novels and who took me to a staged production of The Kite Runner at San Jose State University. Everyone’s lives should be filled with such literate and kind-hearted friends.


Like most fans of Khaled Hosseini’s debut novel The Kite Runner, I was afraid to pick up his newly-released second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns. I was among the millions of readers around the world who found myself slightly dehydrated from the shedding of tears while reading The Kite Runner’s tale of redemption and forgiveness set against the horrors of war and the struggles of immigration. It has been a few years since I read The Kite Runner, and the story still haunts me.

Two weeks ago a friend of mine gave me A Thousand Splendid Suns and I began to read the book completely expecting to be disappointed. I was sure that Khaled Hosseini’s second novel either would be a The Kite Runner sung in a different key, or it would be pathetic nonsense, having us all wish that Hosseini had taken up Harper Lee as a role model, and returned to his medical practice.

But I was not disappointed. A Thousand Splendid Suns is a marvelous novel about two women brought together by war, cultural mores, and marriage to the same abusive man. It is a story of love and domestic survival set against the increasing dilapidation of a nation, as Afghanistan is passed off from the abuses of Soviet occupation to the relentless violence of the Mujahidin to the religious repressions of the Taliban.

While it is unfair to compare A Thousand Splendid Suns to The Kite Runner it is impossible not to. Much of The Kite Runner moved through emotional and physical geography with which I am familiar: like the characters in the novel I have hurt others and found redemption and forgiveness; and while I’ve not been to Afghanistan, large parts of The Kite Runner take place in the neighborhoods where I live and work. That sense of intimacy enhanced the novel’s power over me.

For me the great gift of A Thousand Splendid Suns lay in its complete foreignness. The protagonists are women living in a land I’ve never visited, who survive two decades of warfare while being subjected to the worst kinds of domestic abuse imaginable, all of which is beyond my ken, making Hosseini’s second novel vitally important for me to read.

Important also is Hosseini’s description of Afghanistan. In The Kite Runner, Afghanistan plays a lesser role, being the setting for a story that, in some ways, and with a few important modifications, could have happened anywhere. But in A Thousand Splendid Suns the landscape, culture and modern history of Afghanistan are intricately woven into the story.

I was surprised at what I did not know about Afghanistan, especially given my country’s decades-long involvement in the warfare that rips through the pages of A Thousand Splendid Suns. I knew that the Taliban rose to power in the bloody aftermath of the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan. I knew that the Taliban imposed all sorts of arcane and sometimes kooky rules upon the Afghan people and that they could be cruel in the enforcement of those rules. And, of course, I knew of the connection between Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban regime, which eventually lead to the US invasion of Afghanistan after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

But like most Americans, I was unaware of the depth and complexity of Afghanistan’s ethnic, cultural and religious diversity, and I am grateful to Khaled Hosseini for teaching me what I should have learned a long time ago.

When a nation is at war in a foreign land, as the United States is at war in Afghanistan, it behooves the people of the warring nation to learn about the children of God in whose land the battles are being fought. However justifiable a nation’s warfare may be, it its important that the potential victims of that warfare not be reduced to politically expedient stereotypes, as has happened in popular American perceptions of Afghanistan, where visions of terrorist men and burka-clad women dance in our heads.

I am of the firm conviction that every American should read A Thousand Splendid Suns before our armed forces redeploy from Afghanistan, and I owe a personal debt of gratitude to Khaled Hosseini for opening my eyes to the richness of Afghanistan’s culture and the complexity of its recent history.

18 thoughts on “Book Review: A Thousand Splendid Suns

  1. I too was moved by the “Kite Runner”… a novel.
    I will read “a Thousand Splendid Suns”…however as a skeptic it will more than two novels to understand Afghanistan.
    Did you read Mitchner’s “Afganistan”…perhaps as an historical prelude?
    Harry

  2. Thank you Ben, for this terriffic review. As you know, I am one of the lucky people who can also name Gene Hewitt among my friends.

  3. Barbara, thanks for reading and for posting. I hope that someday we might see a staged version of “A Thousand Splendid Suns” together as we saw “Kite Runner” together.

  4. I just finished “A Thousand Splendid Suns” I am deeply touched by this book. I am grateful to Khaled Husseini to have brought to my attention and emotional awareness, through the characters of the book, the plight of the many who suffer displacement and war in today’s world.
    Your review of the book was very interesting and I’m happy to have come across your website. Thanks.
    I would recommend this book to everyone, it is more than just a read, it is an experience!

  5. I loved the first book.

    Now half way into the second book, I expected to feel what I felt when reading ‘Angels and Demons’ of Dan Brown – that the second thing will not look as new and surprising, as fresh
    and educating as the first one, and that finding too many things as I expect them, I would be
    disappointed with the book.

    Not at all.

    ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ is as good as ‘The Kite Runner’, and some might like it even more.
    Warmly recommended.

  6. I read the book twice in preparation for our book club discussion and found it very compelling both times. Although I had read a lot about the abuses women suffered at the hands of their “religious” male relatives, the book really personalized their awful experiences. The character of Rasheed had dimention that enabled me to see him and smell him and yes, to even see one or two fleeting moments of humanity.
    I know more about the history of afghanistan than I did before and for pure storeytelling I thought this was a real page turner.
    Someone described some scenes as hokey without saying which ones. I did not find anything hokey about the storey.

  7. Recently I read “Kite Runner” (Currently out in the theatre’s) Author, Khaled Hosseini, it was very interesting but depressing. I was most intrigued with the Afgani culture. I fell in love with the book and decided to read another book by same author, “A Thousand Splendid Suns”. WOW what a book! It was even better than Kite Runner. You won’t be able to put it down! This book “unveiled” the women from the Middle East and how they live and suffer under the authority of ruthless, islamic husband’s/men!

    OMG! It has left such an impact in my life and such a respect for these women. You must read this book. My heart burns for there justice and freedom. Although I realize not everyone in Afghanistan or Middle Eastern people go thru the trials mentioned but it has brought awareness to those who may.

    May Our Lord and Savior place a love for the people of the Middle East in His children’s heart’s so that the power of the Holy Spirit will set these people free.

    I challenge you all to get curious about the culture of the Middle East, study it, and pray that God will show you what we can do and how God might lead us to help them.

    Jesus you came for the Jew, gentile, male, female, all of us. Please work in our hearts to DO SOMETHING 4 these people, show them REAL LOVE, a REAL GOD.

    Lord we want to build your kingdom and GLORIFY YOUR NAME!

    I love you Jesus CHrist!

  8. Sherri,

    Thanks for the post. It’s important to remember that the kind of spousal abuse seen in a Thousand Splended Suns is by no means exclusive to Islam. In fact, incidents of spousal abuse seem to remain consistant across the human population. Things like class, race, ethnicity, religion and culture don’t seem to have much impact on how often women are mistreated.

    This is an important point because we don’t want to deamonize Muslims and because we shouldn’t presume that women married to Christian men are safe from abuse, just because their husbands love Jesus.

    Incidentally, I just saw the movie version of the Kite Runner. Wonderful. I recommend it. Great cinematography. Wonderful acting. Good script adaptation.

    Happy Feast of St. Stephen,

    Ben

  9. WELL.. IM HALF WAY IN THE BOOK IF THE KITE RUNNER…. I KNOW U GUYS MIGHT SAY TOOOOO SLOWWWWW… WELL ITS INTERESTING BOOK ALL SHOULD READ IT.. IT OPENED OUR EYES THAT EACH OF ETNICITY HAS SPECIALITIES, NOT ALL OF THEM IS IN THE SAME VIEW A S WE LOOK IN NOW DAYS… WELL I REALLY IMPRESSED WITH KHALED FOR THE MARVELLOUS BOOK, IM STILL IN SEARCH FOR HIS NEW BOOKS. WELL IT SEEMS IN ASIA WE HAVE TO SEARCH DEEPER. GREAT BOOK!!!

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  12. How did I manage to miss this on your blog?

    One of my favourite books of all time, only today was I recommending it to a friend after she told me that she watched the kite runner, strange for me to find this now.

    Anyway, I am not ashamed to admit that I cried at the end of the book. Me, a big tough Scotsman too.

  13. Craig,

    I think that Khaled Hosseini has an amazing ability to make grown men cry. Both books made me bawl.

    I’m really happy to have so good a writer living in San Jose!

    Ben

  14. i read the kite runner and even though it was a GREAT book, i saw biased and incorrect info it it. I believe it made people think of Islam as a backward religion. Khaled Hossaini took the worst side of Afghanistan and the worst side of people claiming to practice Islam and exposed it in this book. I think thats unfair. Khaled Hossani got his info of the Taliban from CNN and BBC and other biased media.

    People reading the book presume islam now as a brutal way of life which in reality, Islam is the opposite. This, about the book, i hated and couldn’t tolerate. American couples abuse each other all the time. In fact, the abuse statistics is higher in america, rape, date rape etc. I felt insulted when biased info about the Taliban was presented in this book.

    Yovon Rindel, a British Journalist who was captured by the Taliban became muslim after her release. Isn’t it ironic?

    What is going on in Afganistan about womens rights is totally a cultural issue and has nothing to do with islam. They still bury female children in india. Is that country muslim.
    Hope you understand. Regardless the Book was a great one. I almost cried at the end when she was about to get executed by the talib.

  15. Sheik,

    Thanks for stopping by my blog. Admittedly, I have a positive view of Islam and Muslims, but I came away from “A Thousand Splendid Suns” with a different point of view than yours. I saw the affirming the fact that the Taliban and their cultural misogyny (and the brutality that often marks governments formed by revolutionary warriors), does not define the Afghan people or Islam.

    I saw this especially in the Kite Runner–when the main character turns to prayer as his nephew/adopted son is in the hospital after attempting a suicide.

    In A Thousand Splendid Suns, the awful, abusive husband was not presented as being particularly religious, and I thought that was important too. It was a demonstration that true religion is a matter of the heart and not of outward appearance.

    I guess our difference of opinion may be a result of our different religious backgrounds, but for what its worth, this Christian has come away from Housseni’s books with an even deeper appreciation for Islam and Muslims.

    Ben

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