Daniel's Reviews > A Thousand Splendid Suns

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
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Mar 15, 13

bookshelves: 2009
Recommended to Daniel by: Rose
Read in March, 2009

It's apparently becoming something of a tradition for me to trash books that are not only widely loved and praised, but were specifically recommended to me by friends. Khaled Hosseini's "A Thousand Splended Suns," I'm sorry to say, is going to get the same treatment. (Forgive me, Rose.) "Splendid Suns" has been so widely read by this point, I won't bother recounting the story, and instead simply list my objections:

- Hosseini seems incapable of creating characters with much depth to them. E.M. Forster, in "Aspects of the Novel," talks about books having round characters and flat characters, with round ones being more like people you'd encounter in the real world, and flat ones being more of caricatures used to move a book's story along. The only character in "Splendid Suns" who approaches roundness, and he's a relatively minor character, is Mariam's father, Jalil. Everyone else is either a villain without any positive traits (Rasheed) or a hero who can do almost no wrong (Laila, Tariq, Mullah Faizullah). Even when Hosseini is depicting a child who has every right to behave badly given his circumstances (Zalmai), he can't help but depict the child as almost evil. The New York Times review of "Splendid Suns" said Hosseini "creates characters who have the simplicity and primary-colored emotions of people in a fairy tale or fable." That's pretty generous of the New York Times. I'd say Hosseini may not be able to create three-dimensional characters.

- While I appreciate Hosseini's attempt to teach a few decades of Afghan history -- a history few readers likely know in much detail -- grafting that history onto the story of one family makes for a rather creaky novel. To impart the history, Hosseini goes back and forth between giving the history through third-person narration, in Wikipedia-like prose, and putting it in his characers' mouths via dialogue -- dialogue often spoken to people who would already know the history. As a result, you sometimes get characters saying things like, "As you know, the Taliban forces men to grow their beards long and women to wear burkas." The cut-and-paste history lessons make the novel painful to read at times.

- Hosseini routinely uses "harami" (bastard) and other words from the characters' native languages in his dialogue, followed by the English translation, apparently in an attempt to bring readers closer to the Afghan culture. But it usually feels incredibly superficial, especially when the words being used aren't foreign concepts, but rather basic words -- "brother," "sister" and the like. Hosseini and his editors also seem to forget about the trope, and cut back on the use of the foreign words in the book's later chapters. I wish they had done the same throughout the book.

- The relationship between Mariam and Laila feels completely artificial. Mariam's initial hate for and jealousy of Laila never feels remotely justified, especially given how awful her husband Rasheed is anyhow, and their coming together later feels rushed and unrealistic. Even after they form a friendship, they never seem to grow quite close enough to fully explain why Laila misses Mariam so much towards the novel's conclusion. Hosseini fails to lay the groundwork needed to justify Laila's emotions in the novel's last chapters.

- Almost the entire book is unrelentingly bleak. Don't get me wrong, I understand Afghanistan wasn't exactly Disneyland over the past few decades, but I think there were more lighthearted moments in the Book of Job than in "Splendid Suns." I don't mind reading a depressing novel, but Jesus. Reading "Splendid Suns," I kept thinking of that old workplace poster: "The beatings will continue until morale improves."

I didn't completely hate "Splendid Suns" -- the story moved along nicely, and it gave me a little more insight into a culture I probably should know more about -- but I don't think I'll be following this one with "The Kite Runner." Khaled Hosseini probably doesn't need me as a reader, though. It seems he has plenty of fans.
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Comments (showing 1-50 of 53) (53 new)

message 1: by Rose (new) - added it

Rose Ah, you do make valid points, especially about the evil vs. good characterisation. The other points, though, either didn't bother me or didn't stand out particularly (like the creaky filling in the gaps dialogue, which I never noticed until you quoted it). But I still enjoyed it.

message 2: by Rose (new) - added it

Rose Oh, by the way, if you want to see some really hilarious "giving the reader the back-story" dialogue, check out the examples in my review of The Silent Bullet

Daniel The particular quote I used wasn't actually from the book, by the way, Rose. It was just my parody of the type of information given through quotes. Just to be clear.

message 4: by Rose (new) - added it

Rose Ah. That isn't *quite* so bad, then.

By the way, if you thought this was bleak, you better not read Child 44...

message 5: by Jen (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jen The book of Job does have more laughs, you're right. But I confess to liking Mariam. Lots.

message 6: by Jessica (new)

Jessica glad to find another non-Hosseini fan.

message 7: by K (last edited Oct 14, 2009 12:26PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

K Great review! I completely agree with all your points, and they were well-put. Incidentally, I thought "The Kite Runner" was worse, if anything -- you're right not to bother with it.

Daniel Thank you very much, Khaya. That's very kind of you. I will continue to steer clear of "The Kite Runner" then.

George Daniel, I agree with you that nearly all his characters are flat and that the use of simple foreign words is ineffectual.

message 10: by Nancy (new)

Nancy Try "Homeless Bird." Written for Young Adults, a one sitting book written quite succinctly and beautifully.

Tammi Morgan I agree with you about Hosseini. However, if he wrote another book, I would read it as a "filler", that is a book to be read between 2 great reads to to give me something to do before I move onto something very thought provoking.

The one thing I kept wondering throughout Rasheed's violent tantrums...why didn't they just shoot him and run. No-one would have heard the shot above the rockets and they could have claimed it was and accident, "he shot himself with his own gun". It irritated me that the women did not find a way out of the violence.

Tengku Zahasman u see, its not as simple as that. ok say they shot rasheed and claimed it was an accident.. then what? who's gonna feed them afterwards and the childrens too? find a job? u know that's not gonna work. what the book is trying to explain is the dilemma of these women trapped between violence and responsibility. in a world where u dont have much rights, u also dont have much choice but to accept and move on.. or wait. by the way, in the book they did 'try' to find a way out by running away, but they got caught. so its not fair to say they didnt do anything to escape the violence.

Eva 'Nomad' I think what brings Miriam and Leila together into a bond, a friendship, is the fate they both share. Miriam has had an empty, loveless life, deprived of any true love or friendship. And having a young girl, an innocent victim of circumstances, placed in her life, in the same situation, into the power of the same brutal man, evokes her sympathy. They become allies, and they count on each bother, because they have no one else to count on. The care for the children also helps bring them closer together. Keep in mind this happens over the years. From my female perspective this is not artificial, its quite believable. It just feels right.

Shruti Many of your points are valid, but are you of Middle Eastern/South Asian descent? If not, that probably explains why you don't understand many of the characters' decisions - most of the book makes complete sense given the cultural and social context.

message 15: by Riya (new) - rated it 2 stars

Riya i completely agree with your review. this book felt so superficial to me and i am no longer interested in reading Kite Runner.

message 16: by Daniel (last edited Mar 15, 2013 09:05AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Daniel Shruti wrote: "Many of your points are valid, but are you of Middle Eastern/South Asian descent? If not, that probably explains why you don't understand many of the characters' decisions - most of the book makes ..."

Not sure what you're referring to, Shruti. I don't really talk about any of the characters' decisions in my review.

message 17: by Chan (new)

Chan The Kite Runner's characters have a bit more dimension, but the book is equally as depressing and feels like it ends on tragic notes. I wouldn't blame you if you chose not to read it. I would have, however, told you to read The Kite Runner first before considering this one. Oh well!

message 18: by Lene (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lene I agree it is bleak and that the political history seems a bit forced. I find Mariam to be likeable, though- even though most of the other characters are quite flat indeed. I especially agree with you about the portrayal of Rasheed's son.

message 19: by Julie (new)

Julie Loved your review, and I admire your courage in admitting to disliking (and even criticizing the literary quality of) a book that has been so widely acclaimed. I haven't read this book (and don't plan to) but your uncommon 2-star review put me in mind of the 1-star review I gave to the highly acclaimed Pillars of the Earth, which I hated on about 19 different levels, thus establishing myself as somewhat of an alien in the literary world. Everyone else seemed to love it.

Claire I can somewhat agree on your points about some of the one dimensional characters but you use Rasheed as an example- a truly evil character. However, he had a huge amount of love, patience and affections to Zalmai, his son. While he treated everyone else appallingly, especially his wives, we see the way his son sees him in a loving,fatherly manner. This is surely Hosseini's attempt to make him more "three dimensional" and I elude he has archived that.

message 21: by Jamila (new) - added it

Jamila I loved the story it was so interested that i couldn't wait to read the next parts.But at the end Mariam should have gone with Laila and they should have buried Rasheed in his yard and no one would known it.

message 22: by Kim (new) - rated it 2 stars

Kim excellent review. Honestly, while I was carried along by the story, I almost felt like I was reading propaganda. The writing lacked depth and the characters did not feel real.

Kelly Silva This book was very well written and hits a sensitive part of society. Read it.

Susmita I think Mariam bashing Rasheed in the head with a shovel shows a very 3-dimensional side - how a submissive personality can turn violent when pushed to the limit. There are many people who do little harm to others in life and suffer for no reason like Laila or Tariq, I don't think they were made out to be heroes.
Zalmai was shown to regret telling on his mother when Hosseini described his scared expression straight after the act.
I agree on the point about the history lessons - made the book slightly more tedious. And I also wish Hosseini had put in more cheerful moments in the book.
About the Afghani words. If you're not from South-Asian/Middle eastern descent, it's difficult to understand the difference those words make to readers from those backgrounds. It's alot more intimate, and sometimes the feelings evoked by even common words like brother and sister would not have been the same if they were written in English.

Janet Oh Daniel, Daniel..you don't understand why they were so bonded? Now that seems somewhat one dimensional. Not intending to insult but surely you can empathize with what might have caused her to be preoccupied with her friend, companion, mother figure? The childbirth is one reason, the reason for the death another. More than enough.

Julie Temme Although I don't completely agree with your review, it is very well written and you do provide your points very clearly!

Satarupa Chakraborty Not an ardent Hosseini fan and I just finished reading the book, and your points look very appealingly debatable. So here is my perspective :P
- "Characters lack depth"
I thought they were sufficiently human, actually. But also, the book is predominantly about simple people from backwards areas whose lives revolve around making sure everyone gets four square meals a day./It's a major concern and might make your mind rather one tracked, if you were in that situation. What would you expect in a character with depth? Wasn't it enough that Mariam evolved from a forelorn and clingy illegitimate child to an apathetic, depressed housewife to a selfless foster mother to Laila and her kids? Rasheed has some , bare minimum positive traits when at the start of his marriage with Mariam, but then dissapointment over failed child births set in, letting him fall in with the same mould of what people recognize as classically conservative Islamic people who set boundaries on their female relatives. Mullah Faizullah was a nice, elderly gentleman to begin with. Would rather he had harsh speech or a tendency to swear, so he would look more human? Laila and Tariq were average young people who did whatever they had to do in order to survive.

-Usage of native language to reflect Afghan culture
Actually, even though the words being used ( harami, brother, etc) werent foreign concepts, but the way they are used and in what context, may definitely be confusing to someone who does not belong to the culture. The simple word brother, tanslated in their native language, is sometimes used as a suffix in casual conversation. In the same way, a native speaker of english would casually use the term "bro" for anyone who is not really his brother. Probably Hosseini wanted this aspect of the culture to show up in his writings.

-Relation between Mariam and Laila feels artificial.
Wellll. Actually, Mariam's initial hate for Laila can be understood in context of the conservative culture they are both a part of. Rasheed is no trophy husband, but wasn't Mariam's feelings logical given that she was dependent on Rasheed, she was an under educated girl from a farway village with no other kin, and the fact that she had invested all her youth, and tolerated the marriage only for the safety and security of food and home it provided...only to be slighted and thrown to the side for a young ane beautiful new comer? Rasheed was awful like you said, but if you have spent over a decade with one person, you cant remain all that detached. After Laila and Mariam form a friendship, they grow close to each other not based on shared secrets or gossips, but on mutual kindness. Neither has anyone else left in the world to call family, neither is very happy in her domestic situation, and there is war all around, which made even waking up tomorrow not a thing that could be taken for granted. I thought the two ladies grew close to each other with the same affinity a dying man catches at a straw. And it seemed pretty self explanatory, given the context.

Sadia Reza Funnily enough, I found these precise flaws in The Kite Runner when I first read it. But I decided to give Thousand Splendid Suns a try anyway and surprisingly didn't have the same problems with it. So as a previous Hosseini critic who jumped into Splendid Suns rife with doubt, I must say I didn't expect to be critiquing a critique such as yours lol.

In terms of creating "realistic characters" I think Hosseini did a much better job in this novel. You said that Rasheed was simply an evil mold, but in the beginning of his marriage with Mariam, he shows signs of being a genuinely caring husband, to the extent that when he gives Mariam the scarf and looks away shyly, she thinks how it's the first real gift she has ever received. Also, his love for Zalmai is the one thing that redeems his despicable character.

You also said that characters such as Laila are too idealistically perfect, without flaws. But she had premarital relations with Tariq - considered a tremendous flaw within that context - and then she conceived a child out of wedlock. Definitely falls short of perfect according to general standards. And there was nothing unrealistic about Mariam and Laila's close connection at all - it is actually more realistic that they unite in the face of an abusive husband.

I think that one of the major reasons that many Western readers (despite how many readers may deny this) may perceive these characters as unrealistic or flat is because we have not experienced what they have, in a situation that exists in the current world, as a result of our own interference. There is a difference in reading something that is entirely fictional, in a fictional world, with fictional historical events, and reading something that is very ingrained in our own times.

Cheryl Anne These are some good points you've made Sadia. I thought Hosseini's writing improved in this book, but the story lacked the author's detectable passion that was the heartbeat of The Kite Runner.

Diego Palomino I believe works of art have to be accepted for what they are and not what what we'd have want them to be. As in film sometimes lighting and filters are used to convey a feeling, so are writing styles. If every writer wrote like Faulkner literature would be pretty boring. I believe the success of Hossein should not be used to judge his work in a negative way, it is not like we're talking about E L
James. I believe he has a story to tell that people are willing to hear.

message 31: by Elif (new) - rated it 2 stars

Elif Best possible review. I knew i didn't like the book but i wasn't sure why and after reading your review and thinking back you touched on all the points.

Elaheh Hi Daniel. Hosseini had to use Farsi words for the concepts that do not exist in foreign culture! And the reason is : They do not exist in foreign culture!!!
But words like brother and sister do exist in foreign culture, so there is no need to use their translated Farsi word.

message 33: by Taylor (new) - added it

Taylor I disagree "A Thousand Splendid Suns" is such an empowering book. After I finished reading it, it made me have a whole new respect for Afghan women. The story's plot is good. It tells the story of Mariam and Laila's lives and how they overcome the obstacles that they faces such as: being beaten by their husband, Rasheed, Laila almost lossing the love of her life Tariq, and so much more. Each character has depth to them stating how they feel, what has happened in their past, and how they change throughout the book. I disagree with you about Hosseini depicting some characters as evil or good. He is only showing their true nature. In my eyes, his characters were very realistic. The relationship between Mariam and Laila wasn't rushed. Laila protected Mariam even though Mariam didn't necessarily treat her well. After that, Mariam started to open up to Laila over time and they soon had a bond as though one of a mother and daughter. Laila cared for Mariam very much and to tell the truth Mariam was Laila's mom. After She passed, she missed her so much because who wouldn't miss someone who mean't so much to them. I think that this book was a work of art and should really be thought about deeply before criticized so harshly.

Elise Daniel, how can you say that Laila was not a complex, round character? She was ready to pass off her illegitimate child with Tariq as Rasheed's. Even though she has a good reason for doing it--desperation--it still does not in any way make her a hero who can do no wrong. She is human, flawed, like all of the others, in my opinion, one of the many reason I *loved" "A Thousand Splendid Suns." I have not been this emotionally invested in a novel in a long time, and Hosseini's writing is beautiful. I finished it in only three days. I couldn't put it down.

Jayanti Banerjee Only about a third of the way through the novel (just as Laila is introduced) and feeling rather depressed. But I'm having fun comparing the Pashto to my execrable Hindi!

Aurora I think just women will understand the story and especially women lived in our countries, suffered from wars, grieve and men's cruelty.that will not be understood for another type of people and the most lovely thing in it that he used native language it made me feel like I live with them, so clever.

message 37: by Ross (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ross Mcmillan I guess I am easily pleased. I thought it was a good read and wasn't put off by dimensionless characters.

message 38: by Todd (new) - rated it 4 stars

Todd I agree with your point that the characters were a bit flat, but... only a bit, IMHO. But the rest of your criticism? Yeah, can't agree. Tremendous book. *shrug*

message 39: by Sana (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sana Tariq I think the reason you can't understand the relationship between the two women is because it's so outside your own schema... it was quite realistic.
Also, just curious..where does it say, "As you know, The Taliban......"? - Thanks

message 40: by T.E. (new) - rated it 5 stars

T.E. I very much enjoyed the book, but I think you made some good points, particularly concerning the flatness of some of the characters

Andrea I didn't find the relationship between Miriam and Laila to be at all unbelievable. Not in the beginning, nor when it changed. A woman is going to fear being replaced, even from an awful position. Miriam couldn't do anything about it and while it's hard to imagine her life being much worse, it would still be humiliating to be replaced by a younger, prettier model. And then, to have to watch your husband lavish on her all the care and affection he never shows you! It's very easy to understand Miriam's attitude. But then, once the "honeymoon" is over and she sees Laila is in the same situation she is, and she sees Laila reaching out to her in friendship, it's also easy to see how this love-deprived woman could give her heart. None of that seems at all implausible to me.

I also didn't find the depiction of Zalmai to be that of a bad child. He seemed very much like you would expect a child growing up in those circumstances to be. He mirrored his father when around him, because he loved him. But, being still a little boy, could be sweet and loving to his mother, when not trying to win the approval of his father.

I like that Hosseini didn't spell every thought and emotion out for you. Rather, the reader is expected to empathize with the characters and discover the whys behind their actions. I appreciate it not being dumbed down.

However, you're right in that it is a very bleak book and even the last chapter, with its talk of cherishing hope, does not redeem the sense of despondency.

message 42: by Ally (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ally Wally I didn't agree with your point about Rasheed being completely evil. He is aware that Aziza is not his biological daughter. He even mentions it to Laila a few times. He doesn't do anything about it, though. He easily could have them both Aziza and Laila killed by the Taliban, but he doesn't. He still makes sure they have food to eat and clothes to wear, for most of the novel anyway. Also, he loves zalmai. Could a completely character be capable of loving someone as much as he does? I don't think so.

But that's just how I see it.

Mikey B. I am about half-way through - and was becoming bored with the rather trite dialogue in this book (or as you say one-dimensional characters).
The book seemed to weave between a historical background and these rather simplistic characters in an attempt to portray evil, misogyny, the consequences of warfare...
I have read other books on Afghanistan (like A Fort of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Story) so felt the historical aspects too secondary. And from what I have read it was far worse than outlined in this book.

All that being said I entirely agree with your review!

Diego Palomino Daniel, the reason you have to trash every successful book is because yours have not been. So obvious.

Lucas I personally think that Hosseini's characters are particularly round. Mariam consistently endures throughout her life while also ending on a bold note by freakin' whacking Rasheed in the head with a shovel. She holds a grudge against her father, Jalil, and does not go outside to meet with him when he waits outside of Rasheed's house with the letter and gifts, regretting it greatly afterwards. She shows vast hatred and vast love. Laila finds it hard to love her mother at times and voluntarily commits pre-marital sex. Likewise, Rasheed obviously shows cruelty while also showing love to Zalmai and inner-contempt towards himself for being the cause of death of his previous son. Every character has different sides and they create relationships that, in my opinion, go beyond Hosseini's words.

Michelle Sfeir As I wa reading "A Thousand Splendid Suns" I felt connected to both Mariam and Laila's life in Afghanistan. You see when you come from a world where wars and injustices have tarnished your history books, you will understand how powerless both women were. As an outside observer you can make claims and find simple solutions to these women's stories yet when ur in their shoes you will understand what it means to sacrifice ones self for the survival of the others. Personally, I loved the book Becoz it depicted a lot of the injustices lived by women not only in Afghanistan but in the Middle East in general.

message 47: by LT (new)

LT Thanks for this review. I hated Kite Runner, but I was thinking of giving this writer another chance...well not anymore. What's really driving me is to learn more about countries like Afghanistan maybe I should just find a non-fiction book.

Emily I do not think that this is accurate at all. I happened to love this book, and felt a deep emotional attachment to the characters. I respect your response, but I simply do not agree with your opinion.

message 49: by Joel (new) - rated it 4 stars

Joel I admit the book doesn't have very well written dialogue or solid, three dimensional characters. Having said that, the core idea behind the book(the plight of women in the Afghan wars) have been conveyed very well by the author and the book doesn't seem to be a bad read at all .

Fleur Mackeltar As someone who studied literature and can differentiate between good and bad literature, flat and round characters, as you may find even in the classics, I have to disagree with you completely . Hosseini not only wrote a master piece with thus book, he also created almost real characters. He put the voice and the whispers of so many afghan women into one book, two main female characters and it turned out to be a scream. He is gifted and he writes about two of the most common topics in literature : pain and love.

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