Mar 15, 13
Recommended to Daniel by:
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.