Discussion location: Our good old favourite, Bacchus bar, apparently been refurbed, noisy kitchen, fatty steak.

Chosen by: Raman (not present as she recently gave birth to a baby girl – Congratulations!)

Reason for choice: It opened up how women are treated in Afghanistan.


Before I begin this review, let me apologise. For the first time, I’m attempting to write a review of a book I didn’t read. I was a little busy getting married, and the subject of oppressed women didn’t seem like ideal marriage reading material. So for my own benefit, I’ll provide a plot summary first.

A follow up to Hosseini’s 2003 bestseller The Kite Runner, this is a story of the women of Kabul. In the first part of this four-part novel, the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy man, Mariam, visits her father when he fails to show up one day. Upon his rejection, she returns to find that her mother has committed suicide. She is quickly married off to an older man, Rasheed, who treats her with disgust, insults, and violence. She becomes pregnant 7 times, but fails to give birth, leading Rasheed to become more abusive.

The second part focuses on Laila, the daughter of an intellectual, but whose parents are killed by a bomb. Alone and pregnant with her boyfriend Tariq’s child, whom she believes is dead, she agrees to marry Rasheed so she and her baby can survive. Rasheed hopes for a son, and becomes abusive to Laila when she has a daughter. Mariam initially views Laila as a threat, but when Laila’s baby Aziza is born, they become friends and allies against Rasheed.

In the third part, they plan to run away from Rasheed but are caught, leading him to beat them and deprive them of water. Laila has a son Zalmai, and Rasheed sends Aziza to an orphanage. One day, Tariq and Laila are reunited, but Zalmai tells his father. As a result, Rasheed almost strangles Laila, but Mariam kills him with a shovel. She confesses to killing him to save Laila and is publicly executed.  Laila and Tariq leave for Pakistan with Aziza and Zalmai.

In the fourth part, Laila and Tariq return to Afghanistan following the fall of the Taliban. They visit Mariam’s village and find a parcel from her father, who regretted sending her away. They use the money in the parcel to fix the orphanage, and Laila starts working as a teacher. She becomes pregnant with her third child and plans to call her Mariam.

As another book club first, reviews of A Thousand Splendid Suns were unanimous. All members (interestingly, all women) described the novel as well written, an important book, and a worthy read, but also depressing, troubling, and not uplifting. In what seems like a never-ending series of books about downtrodden women (as a recap The Help, House of the Spirits, Brick Lane, Cereus Blooms at Night), this book probably would have fared better if read in isolation. We’re becoming a bit jaded by oppressed-women literature.

Nevertheless, this book needed to be written, and Hosseini’s reason for writing it is commendable, “I spoke to many of those women in Kabul. Their life stories were truly heartbreaking…When I began writing A Thousand Splendid Suns, I found myself thinking about those resilient women over and over.” Indeed, the novel accurately and emotively highlights the plight of Afghani women and their sufferings.  As one book club member described it, “I lived every moment of their pain”.

Despite the treatment of women depicted in the novel, the novel’s treatment of women is incredibly positive, showing them as supportive of each other, “the collective spirit” described by Hosseini. In particular, it is heartbreakingly compassionate of Mariam to sacrifice herself for Laila, her one-time competitor and lifelong comrade. The novel powerfully raises the subject of domestic abuse, and thought-provokingly reminded us that even here in England, 2 women a week are killed by their partners; violence against women is still prevalent.

Hosseini’s impressive ability to evoke the atmosphere he describes makes this novel all the more powerful, invoking the heat, the dusty feet, and the wars, in a very visual and convincing manner.  He successfully describes the human element of war, and unlike the detached and wide-angle perspective provided by the news, Hosseini provides a personal perspective of living with conflict.

Despite this novel scoring another 7 (our third successive 7), the score is more reflective of our mood than the significance and power of this novel.

Overall score: 7/10