It is difficult to match the first experience of anything nice. And the expectation from later experiences will always be to match the newness and exhilaration of the first one. Unfair, but true. Successful authors must be painfully aware of this. Authors embarking on a new book after a stupendous success have my respect for their courage.
If it were not for this unfairness, ‘A thousand splendid suns’ would perhaps move me all over again as much as the Kite Runner did. It has the same honest, believable, humane and completely engaging style.
One big difference is that the protagonists are now two women instead of two boys. And this means that where the Kite Runner’s trajectory saw the world going from sweet and leisurely to cruel and deadly, A thousand splendid suns’ only sees it going from already-pretty-bad to unbelievably cruel. And what saddened my out-of-body self who was watching me read, was that none of it shocked me much.
Truth be told, the only mild surprise was in learning how the elite women in Afghanistan had pretty liberal upbringing before a barrage of wars destroyed all things tangible and intangible.
The story is about two women with starkly different upbringing- Laila, who is bright, beautiful and educated; and Mariam- who is none of these, and leads a life of suffering at hands of different people. They have strength- each in their own way. How women express their strength depends on what they have been brought up to believe about their place in the world.
If they are brought up to believe that they are secondary creatures of little significance, they will use the last straw of their strength to keep adapting, trying to please, and bearing all burdens alone- like Mariam. But if they’ve been assured that they are worthy, and that the world needs them, they will use their strength to change circumstances they don’t like, to stand up for themselves and others- like Laila.
What happens when fate unexpectedly pushes them together?
One surmises that women will always turn against each other. Not unlike what’s portrayed relentlessly in media. Imagine a small space, and imagine living in it. Imagine one more person put in this tiny space with you. So unfair- having to share. Now imagine a hand squeezing that space to be smaller and smaller. This new person cannot be tolerated anymore. Where is enough air to breathe? Enough room to stand?
It becomes easy to see this other person as the threat, rather than the hand that is squeezing the space.
And while the book is set in a different time and country, perhaps it’s true everywhere also today. Women may see each other as competitors in claiming that tiny space- Perfect homemaker with flawless skin, excelling professionally and bringing up impeccable kids..all while not having a hair out of place. Hopefully more and more women will direct their drive to challenge the standards themselves, rather than competing to achieve them.
Coming back to the book.. So, do Laila and Mariam figure this out? Does Laila change, or does Mariam? Or do their circumstances change? Of course everything always changes, given enough time. But as my husband always says, people rise to act beyond their current personality and capability only out of love.
And that’s worth writing a book about. That’s what Khalid Hosseini does, again.