Per­sis­tence of hope in the shadow of men

A Thou­sand Splen­did Suns By Khaled Hos­seini Blooms­bury, 372pp, $ 32.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - John Ber­cow

THE Kite Run­ner, said to be the first Afghan novel to be writ­ten in English, told an epic tale of in­di­vid­u­als whose lives were lived across two con­ti­nents amid re­lent­less po­lit­i­cal up­heaval.

Its au­thor, Khaled Hos­seini, stunned crit­ics with the ex­tra­or­di­nary qual­ity of that de­but novel, which has sold more than eight mil­lion copies and soon will be the ba­sis of a film. All too of­ten, the se­quel to a fine book can dis­ap­point. A Thou­sand Splen­did Suns does not.

The story re­volves around two women, Mariam and Laila, born a gen­er­a­tion apart, whose lives come to be in­ter­wo­ven. Mariam is the il­le­git­i­mate child of Nana and Jalil. The lat­ter, who al­ready has wives and chil­dren ga­lore, is a suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man, reck­oned to be a pil­lar of Afghan so­ci­ety, who is de­ter­mined to de­posit mother and daugh­ter a safe dis­tance from the pry­ing eyes and wag­ging tongues of his com­mu­nity. Nana, bit­ter that she has been aban­doned, feels a burn­ing sense of in­jus­tice that Jalil has briefed his fam­ily to swal­low the lie that she has forced her­self on him.

She tells an un­re­cep­tive Mariam: ‘‘ 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.’’

Yet it is only as a teenager that Mariam be­gins to un­der­stand this les­son when Jalil, oily and de­cep­tive, re­fuses pub­licly to ac­knowl­edge and em­brace his daugh­ter.

Mariam is forced to marry Rasheed, a shoe­maker and sadis­tic brute, and is im­me­di­ately sub­jected to his rude­ness, con­tempt and vi­o­lence. En­ter Laila, who has long nur­tured a pas­sion­ate love for one Tariq. Hav­ing been de­ceived into think­ing him dead, Laila, ut­terly bereft, is in­vei­gled into part­ner­ship with Rasheed, soon to be fol­lowed by chil­dren, while Mariam is re­quired to con­tinue as do­mes­tic serf.

The day of reck­on­ing comes for Laila. Pre­vi­ously con­tent with one vic­tim to beat sense­less for any ques­tion­ing, dis­agree­ment or im­per­fec­tion, Rasheed now has an­other on whom to rain blows.

Hos­seini is wise to the re­al­ity that sub­mis­sive- ness has its lim­its. Even­tu­ally the two women, once foes, now friends, turn on their abuser to end their phys­i­cal tor­ture for­ever. Mariam pays the ul­ti­mate price, but Laila has the chance to re­build her life with her first love.

The au­thor is un­com­pro­mis­ing in his de­pic­tion of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and in his por­trayal of the Tal­iban as big­oted, back­ward- look­ing and bru­tal in equal mea­sure. And Mariam is a fine hero­ine. When her end is nigh, she per­suades her­self that she is some­how for­tu­nate.

The re­minder of the end­less tribu­la­tions vis­ited on or­di­nary Afghans for nearly 30 years is worth hear­ing. Yet the war story is sec­ondary to the mes­sage about hope, love and sur­vival against the odds. Hos­seini writes beau­ti­fully and is a nat­u­ral sto­ry­teller.

The Spec­ta­tor

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