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A Thousand Splendid Suns
By Khaled Hosseini
384 pages; $25.95
Of all the places in the world to be a woman right now, Afghanistan has got to be among the worst. Relief worker Ann Jones reports in her book, Kabul in Winter (Picador, 2007), that a staggering 95 percent of women there suffer from some form of domestic violence. And yet some do not lose their sense of humor. Jones writes of explaining to one woman what is meant by the term blind date. "Like my wedding," the woman says.
In A Thousand Splendid Suns, his brisk, heartbreaking follow-up to his mega best-seller, The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini tells a carefully observed story about his country through the eyes of two such women. They are buffeted along by forces of history, from 1974 to the present - married off, embraced by their community, as scarred by war as they are by the horrific abuse at the hands of their husband, a man whom they share.
Hosseini has created two enormously winning female characters in Mariam and Laila, Afghan women born into very different circumstances but who suffer the same problems.
Mariam is the product of a wealthy businessman's sexual dalliance, who grows up enthralled with the idea of her father. She also wants to better herself: to go to school, to learn. It's a desire her mullah encourages, but one that her mother - embittered by experience - tries to squash.
"What's the sense schooling a girl like you?" Mariam's mother asks. "It's like shining a spittoon."
The Kite Runner proved Hosseini, who was born in Kabul and came to the United States in 1980, a natural if occasionally unsubtle storyteller, enormously skilled at manipulating his readers' heartstrings. Those gifts are on display again as he reveals how casually Mariam's own destiny is taken from her hands.
After Mariam's mother kills herself, her father marries the 14-year-old off to Rasheed, a shoe merchant from Kabul. For a while, happiness seems possible, but as Mariam miscarries one child after another, and Daoud Khan's regime falls to communists, the unpleasant friction of her domestic arrangements turn to outright abuse.
Although the novel doesn't need another heroine, Hosseini makes the most out of Laila, a woman born in the communist era, who enjoys the benefits of the schooling and the freedoms that once were possible for women.
As in the case of Mariam, however, history intervenes. Her parents are killed, and her only options become prostitution or marriage. She, too, winds up betrothed to Rasheed.
There is a miniature history lesson embedded in A Thousand Splendid Suns, as there was in The Kite Runner, but Hosseini never belabors it. Nor does the book ever feel like a conveniently framed window into a serious human rights issue.
Hosseini may not be a lyrical writer, but he marshals details well, which helps render his characters' plight - so foreign to us - in human terms. When she first makes love to Rasheed, Mariam can feel the bristles on his ears, which he has shaved for her. Mariam notes how her friend's mother wears a wig, which grows so old with time it turns purple.
Their interior lives are also beautifully evoked. As Mariam herself knows, she comes from a pre-modern world. She doesn't see a car until she gets to Kabul. Laila, born later, has grown up in Kabul and knows what she's missing out on when it is taken away by the Taliban.
So what is the point of reading this novel? The texture of their journey around the craters of their country is no doubt well-known to readers of international news. Rendered as fiction in A Thousand Splendid Suns, however, it devastates in a new way. It forces us to imagine what we would do had we been born to such grim fates.