A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS tells the wonderful, intensely moving story of how two modern Afghan women overcome the great challenges that have faced women in Afghanistan and rise above their victimization. Khaled Hosseini has succeeded in capturing many important historical and contemporary themes in a way that will make your heart ache again and again. Why will your reaction be so strong? It's because you'll identify closely with the suffering of almost all the characters, a reaction that's very rare to a modern novel.
In Part One, you meet Miriam at age five as she learns that she is a harami (an illegitimate child). Miriam's wealthy father, Jalil, had seduced a housekeeper, Miriam's mother, Nana, six years earlier and now provides for both of them in a remote shack where he can keep a low profile. Despite his concern about his reputation, Jalil adores the attention that Miriam devotes to him. All proceeds in an artificial and harsh way until one day Miriam decides to demand her father's attention. The consequences shape her world for the rest of her life.
In Part Two, the story moves to focus on Laila, who was born to Miriam's acquaintance, Fariba, at the end of Part One. Laila's rearing is almost totally the opposite of Miriam's. Laila is loved by both her parents with whom she lives and has many chances to develop her knowledge and skills. Laila lives in Kabul while Miriam grew up in the countryside outside of Herat. Laila is beautiful while Miriam is plainer. They also grow up in different times: Miriam is old enough to be Laila's mother. Miriam never had a male friend while growing up, while Laila is fascinated by the one-legged Tariq. All is going well for Laila until the war intrudes to send her life off into an unexpected direction.
In Part Three, the two women begin to share a destiny and develop a relationship. Their lives are more fundamentally changed by this relationship than by anything else that has happened to them. The magic of the story is most evident in Part Three.
In Part Four, we come into the present, when Afghanistan is once again opening itself to possibilities.
The time span of the book is from 1964 to the present. In the background, you are kept up-to-date on political events that shake the entire country. In some cases, those political events turn into revolutions and wars. In many cases, the violence intrudes into the lives of the book's characters. It's like reading War and Peace as adapted to modern Afghanistan.
The book also deals with issues of class, religion, sexual roles, child rearing, work, education, and community. These issues are highlighted in terms of the different regimes and attitudes of the controlling male characters. For Afghanistan was a world where the men called the shots, unless they chose not to do so.
Although the issues that are raised and the way that they are raised are pretty predictable, it's a tribute to Mr. Hosseini that you won't see them coming. He moves his characters and action around in such a way that you won't see much foreshadowing of what's to come. Part of that skill comes in making each page so interesting and engaging that you are pulled away from thoughts like "I wonder where he's going next with this plot." I found myself deeply inside the story throughout. That's rare for me, especially in a story that focuses on female characters.
It's early in the year, but I wouldn't be surprised if A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS turns out to have been one of the very top novels of 2007.
I highly recommend this book and encourage you to discuss it with your friends. This novel would be a great choice for your book club.