Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 26, 2013

A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007), by Khaled Hosseini, narrated by Atossa Leoni

A Thousand Splendid SunsIt’s curious, isn’t it, how Afghanistan has morphed from a place most people had never heard of, to a country that features as the setting for bestsellers? A Thousand Splendid Suns is the bestselling successor to the bestselling Kite Runner, and in the airport bookshop yesterday I saw a new release by this author on the Top Tens shelf.  (There is also that novel by an Algerian author, The Swallows of Kabul, though I didn’t think that one was very good).

(It makes one think of all the other places from which we in Australia never seem to see a book: when was the last time I saw a book from Syria? or from Ethiopia, Tibet, Guyana?  Even the Balkans rarely make it into bookshops here in Australia, I was lucky that Istros Books sent me a couple for review or I’d never have read a book from Bosnia or Croatia).

Anyway, I think there’s more to the popularity of these Afghan books than the stories they tell.  I think they’re popular because they feature Afghan lives of great misery and the West needs to believe that it has liberated Afghanistan from degradation and given its people hope.  So many brave young men have lost their lives in the Afghan War, that we want to learn about the place where they lost their lives, and to take some small consolation from the knowledge that they died in a good cause.

A Thousand Splendid Suns certainly doesn’t mince details about the squalor and deprivation of Afghan life.  It begins just before the Soviet Occupation, then traces the rise of the Mujahedeen armed by competing interests, the arrival of the Taliban, and finally their expulsion into Pakistan.  These decades of war make death and destruction an inevitable part of life, but the Afghan spirit remains undefeated.  The underlying theme, its heroes and its plot are all in the best traditions of propaganda, not dissimilar to those black-and-white war movies that seem so quaint today.  Right seems utterly right, and the evil must be defeated, no matter the cost.

Ambiguities and moral complexity have little place in a novel of this sort, but occasional bitterness seeps in.  The story of Maryam and Laila, Rasheed and Tariq is domestic in orientation and laced with the impact of conflict on their lives no matter who is in power, but the novel also reveals hostility against great powers who have used Afghanistan in the service of their own interests and have failed to keep their promises about reconstruction aid money.  As Western troops withdraw, the message is clear: it is up to Afghans themselves to maintain governance and security because the West has other preoccupations now.  Whether this is fair or not is for history to judge.

A Thousand Splendid Suns posits that the coming generation is up to the challenge.  Previous generations represented by Jalil and Rasheed, the defeated women and the corrupt warlords symbolise the failed past.  Maryam, from the intervening generation, is the sacrificial symbol, and Laila, her husband and the children will rebuild society in a new way.

Maryam is a woman whose life was blighted by being the illegitimate daughter of Jalil. She is denied education, and after her mother dies she is married off to the misogynist Rasheed, a shoemaker in Kabul, where she is out of sight and out of mind to Jalil’s embarrassed family.  (I never quite understood the genesis of this problem since Afghan men are allowed to have as many wives as they like.  As I understand it Jalil could have married Maryam’s mother whether his other wives liked it or not.  Why he didn’t and why he continued to have a relationship with his illegitimate offspring, especially since she was a girl, and therefore despised in Afghan society, made no sense to me.)

Laila, some years younger than Maryam, becomes Rasheed’s second wife.  He takes her in when she is badly injured in the rocket attack which killed her entire family, and she accepts his offer despite his unprepossessing looks and loathsome cruelty to Maryam because she needs a husband.  The freedom that women had under the Soviets is gone.  Women are denied education, work, and the freedom to move about.  They may not leave the house without a male relative, they may not show their faces or any part of their bodies, and their voices may not be heard in the street.  They are non-persons, entirely at the mercy of male members of their family.

Maryam has put up with Rasheed’s brutality for years because she has no choice, but Laila is a feistier character.  Not realising the extent of Rasheed’s contempt for women, his cruel deceit and his capacity to enforce his rule in a society that grants him absolute power, she tries to achieve some self-determination.  The scenes which trace this unequal battle of wills are grim indeed.  I am deliberately omitting details here because I want to avoid spoilers, but anyone who reads these chapters will be appalled by the licence granted to Rasheed: he acts as he does because his society gives him carte blanche to treat women and girls as he pleases and they have no redress whatsoever.  It makes the battles for women’s liberation in the west look trivial.  But it’s also a transparent plea to western feminists: don’t let your leaders abandon Afghanistan or misogyny will be back. (I think most western feminists are well aware that Afghan misogyny was and is barely repressed even in Kabul, and that the Taliban merely liberated what was always there anyway.)

The satisfying resolution of Laila’s circumstances is not entirely convincing but it offers the hope that Western readers need to believe in.  Whether that credence will extend to believing in the characterisation of Tariq as a sensitive modern Afghan male is a matter of doubt.

The narration is well done, though the accent takes a little getting used to.

Author: Khaled Hosseini
Title: A Thousand Splendid Suns
Narrated by Atossa Leoni
Publisher: Clipper Audio, 2007, first published 2007
ISBN: 9781407400105
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library


Fishpond: A Thousand Splendid Suns (This is an abridged audio book, only 5 CDs instead of 11.  Goodness knows what they pruned from it to reduce it by half).  There is also the book: A Thousand Splendid Suns which I have actually got on my TBR but I never got round to reading it.


  1. I have read this novel. Though, I enjoyed the Kite Runner more. Khaled Hosseini is one of my favourite writers. I look forward to reading his latest novel and the moutain echoes.


    • Hi Mary, I look forward to your review (though I love your reviews of African writers best even though they add to my TBR every time).


  2. I have never gotten into audio books but this review has made me want to.


    • I think they’re good for stories with uncomplicated plots, I use them on my way to work.


      • I have a few long trips coming up so any recommendations?


        • If you click the ‘audio books’ category in the drop-down menu above the search button you can find all the ones I’ve reviewed. Two that spring to mind are The Northern Clemency and Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia.


          • Awesome thanks!


          • Thanks I will check them out!


  3. I read two Syrian books this year- In Praise of Hatred by Khaled Khalifa and The Hedgehog by Zakaria Tamer. Both of them were clearly written for a local audience with the result that I often felt like there was something I was missing. In some sense I think that’s good, not everything should be written to be accessible an American audience. It did make them a bit of a challenge though.


    • Hmm, that’s how I felt about The Colonel by Dowlabati, but even though it was one of the most difficult books I’ve read, I really valued the way it cut through all the stereotypes we have about Iran in the west. I’ve heard others speak highly of In Praise of Hatred – was it nominated for a prize somewhere?


      • Yup, it was on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist!


        • I knew I’d heard of it somewhere!


  4. I have A Thousand Splendid Suns sitting on my pile to be read. In fact I started it sometime ago, then I lost my father and never got back to it. But I enjoyed it so much, or at least the part I read. but not so much as The Kite Runner. Your wonderful review just tells me to go back to it, Lisa. :-)


    • It’s sad, I know, when a book reminds you of an unhappy time in your life. And this is not a book you would want to read when you are grieving.


  5. must admit I have never read one of his books ,I have read books set in Afghanstan and true nice to see it get noticed by people ,all the best stu


  6. […] A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini, narrated by Atossa … […]


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