Rachel's Reviews > A Thousand Splendid Suns

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
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's review
May 30, 2008

it was ok
Recommended to Rachel by: middle class liberal white woman
Recommended for: middle class liberal white women
Read in March, 2008

** spoiler alert ** a good story. it was easy to read and went really quickly. liberal white women will love this book. thank allah i'm an uptight radical.

hosseini was disappointing for me for several reasons...

1. this text and the kite runner are touted for their 'brave and unapologetic' look at the hidden lives of those suffering/maybe surviving in (the predominantly taliban-controlled era) afghanistan. whatever. this is the same story is the same story is the same story. i think the one woman even gets to paint her fingernails in the end. the topic is not so tired but the way it's addressed is- woman sold/war-torn into abusive patriarchal muslim culture, woman persevere, woman get comeuppance. well, the young pretty one that is loved by another male character- but i'll attack that later. if mid-east gender injustice is your thing, read "woman at point zero" out of egypt by saadawi or watch "osama" about afghanistan. both of these address these topics in much more eloquent and interesting ways and without (or at least done better) the false feminism.

2. speaking of false feminism- this book is about women in relation to men. the plot and character development consistently rely on a male character. at one point it attempts to make the story about the relationship between the women, but, nope, back to relying on dudes. the women characters barely exist if it weren't for the men in their lives. boring.

3. it perfectly fits into the western literary canon. the narrative is linear and pov is labeled by chapter. it's been written for a western audience by a non-western author about a non-western topic, i want it to respect my intelligence and write in a non-western style. it lacks the cadence and artistic quality of middle eastern literature that makes these horrible stories alive and therefore devastating (as they should be).

4. the characters and their fates are generic and predictable. the story line follows popular heteronormative tropes about what is a worthwhile destiny and consequently a valuable life. one woman, mariam, is beheaded for killing her husband while trying to save the sister wife, laila. mariam is old, infertile, supposedly unattractive and up until this point has had no radical ideas of her own. laila however is young, beautiful, educated, fertile, rebellious, and has another man that she can run away with whom loves her. the sequence of events suggests to me the same old ideas about what is a livable and grievable life. boo. i don't like that this story tells me that this makes sense, that mariam has to die as a symbol because her life was recognized as less valuable and ergo less livable.

i've dealt this book a good deal of hateration it might not totally deserve but i feel like if you're going to be hanging around the new york times book list you should live up to it. leave the western style to white dudes. um, but, good story though...
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Comments (showing 1-27 of 27) (27 new)

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Celia Thank you, Rachel. I'll try the alternatives you recommend.

Rebecca I wondered about this when I read the book:
"it's been written for a western audience by a non-western author about a non-western topic, i want it to respect my intelligence and write in a non-western style."
Thanks for putting it so concisely!

message 3: by Jenny (last edited Feb 27, 2009 01:59PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jenny Rachel, Thanks for your comment about the "younger, prettier" woman and how her story ended. This troubled me, too. And did the author need to make her blond for Western audiences to fully sympathize with her? Really.

Gill I am obviously a middle class libral white woman as I became completely engrossed in this book!! Thank you for your review, it has certainly made me consider my reaction to the book. I put off reading this book for a long long time because I felt it would be depressing and hard going. I found it neither and I would put that down to his style. I have never read any middle eastern lit so cannot really comment on the differences, but you are right that it is aimed at a western audience who want uncomplicated and non-devastating stories! Why else did it end up on the Richard & Judy book club?! Thank you for the alternatives, will certainly look out for them now.

Susan I can see several of your points, but #4 hits hard. I saw nothing in the circumstance that required Mariam to die. Hosseini seemed to think she needed to die for A) symbolism, and B) a chance to describe female incarceration. I have no patience for the expectation that the older, uglier woman with no lover must die to pave the way for the younger one with a family. I was torn by this story, but the artificial ending did a lot of damage to the whole narrative IMHO.

رناتا Definitely those works you suggested are interesting as well, and definitely more educational; but this is a novel, it is fiction, and Khosseini's work, therefore is subjective and he uses many symbols. IMHO, Miriam is a symbol of an era that is/should be over, her death means the end of the past and the coming of a new era in which things can be different. Khosseini has faith in the future of Afghanistan, as it can be perceived in both novels he's written. Maybe it's a conventional story, designed for white Western audiences, but the story is devastating, just look at the ending! In the end there is hope in the future, but the weight of the past, and the pain of the presente is still there, and everybody's life is destroyed. I don't agree with your opinion about "White middle class liberal women", since the book is a success in countries like Turkey (I've read it in Turkish in fact), and I am sure it is popular in those ME countries in which it is not banned. It is a women story which many of us can feel. If the situation in Spain was heartbreaking after a 3 years war that distroyed everything (my grandparents' stories can give you chills, although they are white), I cannot picture how is it like in AFG after all these many years of war and destruction; the book shows the unfairness of war, the destruction caused by war; end of law and order, people taking advantage of a law-less situation, and how people's life are utterly destroyed and dramatically changed by events alien to their lives.

Rachel Renata wrote: "Definitely those works you suggested are interesting as well, and definitely more educational; but this is a novel, it is fiction, and Khosseini's work, therefore is subjective and he uses many sym..."
I am not taking an argument against the reality of war and patriarchy and sorrow, I am taking a stand against the ways in which Hosseini chooses to address those items. Certainly there is real devastation felt locally and among the masses. And of course, as a novel, one can write whatever the hell they feel like. Therein lies the trouble with socially, politically, or theoretically challenging ANY fiction. So what good is a critical review on said "Goodreads"?
However, I still think it is suspect that Miriam is a "symbol of an era that should is/should be over." Wait- my exact criticism was that her character was completely AS A SYMBOL, and not an autonomous, valuable human. She is a human (that supposedly existed, symbolically or not), and there is no reason to throw the things she apparently stood for, out the window. Is the new/should be new AFG young, fertile, well-educated, radical, maybe dyed blond, and loved by another man really what needs to be epitomized? Who gets left behind in that narrative? Who gets left behind in this, actual, real world? Are there really only Laila's that are viable in this new, should be, world (or even just AFG)?
Also, Turkey has the most liberal government (to be still included as Middle East), the most female high ranking politicians IN THE WORLD, and has produced some of the most forward thinking Middle Eastern literature to date- setting Turkish readership against a "liberal" standpoint is geographical at best.

رناتا I think Miriam, who is a clear symbol of the unjustice of traditional Afghan society, lets herself die because she didn't feel there was anything left to live for.

She led a happier life since Laila came into the house, with children around and having a friend, a friend that became a daughter fo her, and she couldn't let the source of happiness of her life to die for her action. All Miriam wanted in life was Love, and never had it before, she only had to face rejection, sadness and loneliness.

Nevertheless, I feel that Miriam sacrifices herself, not only for Laila, but for Aziza and Zilmai. She wants Aziza and Zilmai's to have the family she never had, the love she never had, and the education she never had. A completely different new life.

In Khaled Hosseini's vision of Afghanistan, Afghanistan's only hope is having an educated youth, because that is the key to success from all points of view. All his characters normally love education and culture, like Miriam, Laila or Aziza; and most women in AFG don't have any access to education. Having a higher education would allow women to live longer, take care of their children better and being able to handle many things by herself, even if she decides to be a housewife. Through education probably there would be no Miriams, casted out from birth, deprived from education and married against her will. He defends the right of women to decide what to be in life. He doesn't want anybody to be left out, but to participate in the reconstruction of AFG. Miriam participates by helping the chidren live, Laila and his husband by coming back to Afghanistan and educating their children.

That is how I see Miriam's role in the story. Somehow, she is the center of the plot.

What you said about Turkey is very beautiful on paper, but there is another side of it. You're missing "Miriam's side" of Turkey.

David Of course the book is about women in relation to men- it's set in a stricly muslim country where men count and women don't- how can he write the story in any other way? Yes, we've heard it all before but that doesn't mean it isn't realistic.
Feminist distaste with tired cliches such as women painting their nails is understandable, but in Afghanistan, when Taliban controlled, nail varnish and make-up were real if rather pathetic methods of rebellion. What freedoms you don't have, you value.
He writes in a western style- he would, wouldn't he, he is a westerner, or at least he's lived in the west since he was a child. Why on earth should non-white people be prevented from writing in a 'western' style. OK, I suppose the plot had a predictable 'western' outcome, but it was still a good story. The simple style made it accessible to a dumbed down reader such as myself; as a result Hosseini could inform me about his country of birth, surely worthwhile even if the outcome was a little trite.
Finally-'if you're going to be hanging around the new york times book list you should live up to it' - if he had done all the things you said the book might have had more merit but it wouldn't have bothered the New York Times book list.

Muneeza I found your review interesting, particularly what you said about Mariam having to die so the young, pretty sister-wife could survive. I was under the impression that Mariam's character in this novel was unsurpassed and that the author was trying to keep her purity going by giving her a martyrdom of sorts. I think he killed her off because she was the favorite. In my mind's eye, I pictured her as much more attractive than the one who was physically portrayed as more attractive because of her spiritual and mental endurance. An interesting point is that Hosseini named her Mariam which is the Arabic name for Mary, a woman known for her piety. I believe her character was created in such a way as to prepare the reader to embrace her martyrdom, and at times even dislike the other girl who carried beauty, but not piety (falling pregnant before getting married, being more harsh-tongued, fighting back, etc.).

Catharine Walters I agree with you, Muneeza, and think that Rachel's review is affected by her own middle-class perspective. Why does she recommend this book for middle-class, liberal readers? Suns offers a view into the world of the war-torn Middle East for conservatives, lower-class, and it provokes interesting discussion of the men as well as the women, presenting a diverse cast -- Laila's father, Mariam's father, Rasheed, Tariq - and the minors. What shaped their beliefs and prompted their actions. I would not have trusted a Westerner writing this book to reveal to me these Middle Eastern characters.

message 12: by Milloum (last edited Oct 10, 2010 05:13PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Milloum "it's been written for a western audience by a non-western author about a non-western topic, i want it to respect my intelligence and write in a non-western style."

"leave the western style to white dudes."

um-- what??

not a bad review besides, I partly agree with some of your comments, but why the need to be so goddamn prescriptive? Anyway, read Kh. H.'s bio again. I'm sure Shari'a-thumping Talebans would agree with you actually... he is dreadfully "polluted by western morals", isn't he? :P

I think accusing Hosseini of calculatingly bestsellerizing his prose is a rather baseless accusation. And retroactive-- if the book had not been such a hit, surely you wouldn't have levelled this charge? So there is something "easy" about his writing, and, yes, he fits rather snugly into the western literary tradition. But you can't prove that he purposefully aimed low and wide...

I'm sure you just got fed up with the hype around this novel. I don't think your review would've been half as scathing if this had been some unknown, unsold book... you probably wouldn't have bothered to write about it at all then. Am I more or less right? You did say Hosseini should expect to have to "live up to" his NYT Book list status... I don't see why the better a book is sold the harsher (and less respectful) its reviewers should allow themselves to be.

Jenny-- I really don't believe KhH made Laila blond just so that westerners could "sympathize" better... Why he chose to make her a Tadjik I don't know, maybe on a second read it would become apparent, or a little knowledge of south asian ethnic background would help... but again, there's nothing to sustain that accusation.

رناتا Hosseini himself is ethnically Tajiki, plus there are blond people in Afghanistan (and in other countries of the ME)

Patrick I do not think one can leave men out of the story when one talks about the middle east especially Afghanistan since in their culture men rule so men have to be in the picture in order to portray Afghani life accurately.

Charlotte M. About it being a "women rely on men" book...yes. It was. On purpose. In Afghanistan women were not allowed to go anywhere without a man, and men were FORCED to be the only breadwinners in the household. So to say that they rely on men throughout the entire book..well, good observation. And if you're complaining about it, complain that they HAD to rely on a man, complain that Afghanistan has been like this before, do not complain about how the author portrayed it. To leave it out of the story would've made the story less accurate.

Cookiecrumble Agreed.

Melia You're stupid Rachel. No matter the 'craftsmanship' of this book it still effects someone that acually has a heart. These are real life situations. Maybe instead of complaining about how this book was written you should use that energy to help the type of people depicted.

message 18: by Phil (new) - rated it 5 stars

Phil What Rachel is not telling you is that she is a Muslim and must support her culture

Susie I agree with Charlotte M. COMPLETELY. Yes, it's too bad that the book couldn't completely focus on the relationship of the two women, but Rasheed was central in their lives. They wouldn't have had a home, food, water, clothes, ANYTHING, unless they were married to someone, since neither of them could rely on a father or a brother. The men in this book are portrayed with a wide brush, some really awful, some mildly awful, some trying to good and kind, and some who definitely were good and kind. I don't think this book was man-hating or pejorative towards the women. I think it was a slice of cultural life, and one that hopefully will allow some of us White Neo-liberal middle aged women to have a better understanding.

message 20: by Kat (new) - rated it 2 stars

Kat Becker I agree wholeheartedly.

message 21: by Matt (new) - rated it 4 stars

Matt Davis A bit snarky of me, but I find weird that you use "hetronormative," "literary canon," and "tropes," yet are unwilling to capitalize or use woman/women and who/whom correctly. The story is flawed, but more from character development than anything I can see in your rant against it.

Lindsey There was something off for me about this novel, and I wasn't quite able to figure out what it was until reading your review. It definitely has emotional appeal as well as a pretty good storyline, but it is also terribly generic in structure. You're looking for something a little more postmod, yeah? I think this novel is such a big deal due to the combination of foreign content and familiar form. I don't think Hosseini is capable of writing outside of Western tradition, and believe it or not, I don't think that's necessarily bad. I think novels like this are necessary to start leading the canon into a new direction. Thanks for your alternative recommendations, by the way. I'm definitely going to look into those.

Aurora I disagree with you. I'm a girl from land suffering same problems and I see women lived like this and they are obligated to live like this. the only wish they want in wars and under men's cruelty is a safe home and a little food. that thing who you live in the west world wil never ever understand. I invite any one in Europe and USA to come and live in Afghanistan, Iraq or even Syria. I'm sure we will see in your own eyes what the emotions that Khaled want us to feel.

Laila I felt exactly the same, except you expressed it more eloquently. I hated the way the book pretends to be about women - because it's really really not. And yeah, wow. Also the ending where Mariam had to die to make way for the pretty, happy, conservative family idea made me punchy. Great review.

Mahbubur Tanim This book is not about feminism nor this book is a feminist book; rather it is a social portrait of the Afghan culture and day-to-day lives for the last few decades. And please stop saying Mid-East (which depicts your poor knowledge on the whole plot). Afghanistan was never a middle east country. A woman's life in Afghanistan at those times (and even now) was bound to circle around a man/men's life(s).

Juliana Jiranek I thought that Mariam's death symbolized the only action in her entire life in which she claims autonomy. Her situation means that taking control of her own life is synonymous with death. Also I would say that it is written towards a western audience because that is the audience he intends to address. Part of his goal is to educate people who don't know about the situation in Afghanistan. Just because you are so enlightened it doesn't mean everyone is.

message 27: by Phil (new) - rated it 5 stars

Phil Juliana wrote: "I thought that Mariam's death symbolized the only action in her entire life in which she claims autonomy. Her situation means that taking control of her own life is synonymous with death. Also I ..."

Juliana, I believe your identification of who the author's audience is spot-on as it relates to this novel. Another book of similar circumstances is The Fort of Nine Towers. Here again the author, although an Afghan, address this non-fiction work to a Western audience.

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