Sunday, November 4, 2007

The heat of a thousand suns

Finally finished Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns last night, a tale of domestic abuse in Afghanistan that will make your hair curl and your liberal conscience groan, but all the while you won't be able to put it down. I like Hosseini's writing, I really do, although his heartwrenching moments do get a little manufactured. 1) Depressing or disappointing episode. 2) Long wait. 3) Bring episode up again in a quick, unexpected allusion. 4) Stand back and watch the waterworks.

But he writes so well, particularly in his descriptive passages, that I'm inclined to forgive the vaguely mechanical quality, which might also be a function of the very looping plot. It focuses on two women: Mariam, an illegitimate child who grows up isolated and worshiping her wealthy and Westernized father, and the much-younger Laila, a gorgeous, petted and liberally educated child with a happy family. The Soviet invasion and other assorted disasters that Afghanistan endured combine to trap these two in exactly the same miserable situation, however. I won't spoil the plot twists for you, except to say that it is not a walk in the park.

This book, unlike Hosseini's previous hit, The Kite Runner, takes us up to the present day in full gory detail (KR focused more on the past, as I recall), and that's the part that makes me groan. I don't doubt in the least that Hosseini is depicting the Afghanistan he knows
and clearly loves, and nobody could expect anything but a thoroughly depressing narrative from that. But I do worry about the uses to which the novel can then be put, as in "look how screwed up this country was; clearly we need to invade and fix it." (Not that anyone is worried about fixing Afghanistan these days.) In particular, Suns includes an abusive husband calculated to fulfill all evil stereotypes of Islamic gender relations, and he is rendered so vividly that the loving, supportive husbands also depicted don't balance him out at all.

Hosseini also suffers from Peter Jackson syndrome, the need to have ending after weepy ending in quick succession.

Still, a thoroughly good read, and one I'd recommend, because it clearly has been vexing me. And as you all know, the one thing I love even more than a book I fall in love with is a book that I can carp about until the sun goes down. Or a thousand of them.

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