Given that A Thousand Splendid Suns is a well-intentioned attempt—made by Afghan author Khaled Hosseini—to pay homage to the women of Afghanistan and the trials they face within the confines of war and patriarchy, one almost feels guilty to admit to not liking it. While the subject matter is unquestionably relevant, I can’t award Hosseini an A for effort.
The novel, spanning from the 1970s to 2003, chronicles the lives of two Afghan women who represent polar opposite sides of Afghan culture: Mariam, a bastard child shunned by her relatives and married off to an abusive man thirty years her senior, who makes her wear a burqa; and Laila, a teenage girl born into a loving, progressive family, experiencing the tribulations of adolescence and early adulthood, as well as the political unrest of her home country. United by tragedy and trying circumstances, Mariam and Laila come to rely on each other for survival during the power struggles of the Mujahedeen and the Taliban, as well as their personal struggles with domestic violence.
While the writing style is engaging and the story serves to entertain and educate readers about the various political issues in Afghanistan, ultimately the novel never attains depth. It is safe to say that Hosseini’s priority was to depict the lives of Afghan women and the hardships they face instead of taking the time to develop characters and add dimension. When I pick up a war novel, I want the human side to the story that goes beyond the war headlines, and all I got from A Thousand Splendid Suns was the outline of the story, with little substance. If I wanted to read a journalist’s account of the lives of Afghan women, I would Google that.
The novel is plot-driven and the characters lack personality, and are mere representations of the issues they represent. Mariam is the abused Afghan wife; her husband Rasheed is the controlling Afghan man; beautiful, intelligent Laila represents the promise of Afghanistan’s youth; her love interest, Tariq, is simply every teenage girl’s dream. These cardboard cutouts are mere vessels through which Hosseini expresses his social and political standpoints. They are confined by the roles they play in the story, never developing their own characteristics, and are thereby difficult to connect with.
I don’t want archetypes or stock characters, and I don’t want a theme-based story. I want a character-driven story about real, flawed women dealing with their hardships their own way, not so we can go, “Oh, those poor Afghan women,” but so we can relate to them and empathize with their plight. I want believable dialogue, characters with likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. In short, I want more than what A Thousand Splendid Suns gave me. In order to truly empathize with women in war-torn regions, one must look beyond the bigger world of politics to see the humanity behind it all.