AFGHAN-BORN novelist Khaled Hosseini is back with his long-awaited second novel, “A Thousand Splendid Suns.” (The book’s title was inspired by lines from the 17th century Persian poet Saib-e-Tabrizi’s ode to Kabul, Hosseini’s birthplace: “One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs, / Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.”)
Hosseini enthralled readers with “The Kite Runner,” which was constructed around the friendship between Amir, a privileged Pashtun Sunni born in Kabul, and his boyhood friend and servant Hassan, a Shia, ethnic Hazara and master kite runner who, in the course of running to retrieve the coveted last fallen kite of the winter tournament in 1975, encounters violence that changes both boys’ lives.
“The Kite Runner,” which has sold 4 million copies in the U.S. alone, introduced an American audience to Afghan culture and history through a tragic tale of betrayal and redemption. The sweep of the novel extends from the 1930s, when Amir’s father is born at the beginning of the 40-year reign of Zahir Shah, through 1981, when Amir and his father are forced into exile in Northern California by the Soviet invasion, and up to Amir’s return to Kabul in 2001, during the brutal reign of the Taliban, in search of Hassan’s son.
Now that Hosseini is the mega-selling guy to beat instead of an unknown author of the sleeper hit, how does “A Thousand Splendid Suns” hold up? I put it to the ultimate test. I read the new novel during a recent airplane trip, beginning in the car on the way to the airport and continuing through the usual drill: kiosk check-in, bag check-in, security check -- shoeless, with clear plastic bag and book in hand. I read while waiting in the airport with coffee and aboard the flight, surrounded by screaming babies, with the guy in front of me, his seat back, virtually napping on my lap. And I was hungry (nothing for purchase aboard but trans-fat-loaded snacks).
Could the thread of Hosseini’s story stay with me through all of that plus the return flight to New York, in which the departure was delayed by thunderstorms in the Midwest prompting a two-hour wait in the cool corridors of San Francisco’s United terminal (decent sushi and Peet’s coffee), then five-plus hours in the air? In short, could this story be sustained through life’s distractions, circa 2007?
That’s a lot to ask of any author. But Hosseini has the storytelling gift. Suspended in my otherworldly zone, I discovered the fictional village of Gul Daman, the minarets, bazaars and gardens of Herat, the snowcapped mountains and communal tandoors of Kabul.
I had not been so engrossed since I picked up James A. Michener’s “Hawaii” at a flea market. Michener, the Pulitzer-award winning pioneer of the mixture of historic fact and fiction that is standard today, describes Hawaii from the perspective of the original islanders (“Havaiki that has lived in our hearts for forty and fifty and sixty generations.... ") as vividly as he does a massive volcanic eruption and ensuing tsunami.
Hosseini, too, offers us the sweep of historic upheavals narrated with the intimacy of family and village life. In his new novel, he weaves the stories of two Afghan women during several decades of cultural turmoil. Mariam is the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Herat businessman and his housekeeper. Born in 1959, she is raised in a hut on the outskirts of town, where she is visited weekly by her father.
Her mother tells young Mariam, “Learn this now and learn it well, my daughter: Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman.”
After her mother’s suicide when Mariam is 15, her father marries her off to a much older man, a shoemaker named Rasheed. He is a traditional Pashtun who moves her hundreds of miles away from her birthplace to Kabul and insists she wear a burka.
“Where I come from, one wrong look, one improper word, and blood is spilled,” he explains. “Where I come from, a woman’s face is her husband’s business only.”
When Mariam is unable to bear Rasheed a child, experiencing many miscarriages, he treats her with increasing cruelty. Enter Laila, daughter of the couple’s Tajik neighbors. Laila’s brothers are killed by the Soviets.
In 1992, the year Laila turns 14, the jihad ends, and the mujahedin come to Kabul “in flesh, blood and battle-weary bone.” The plan is for an Islamic Jihad Council, preliminary to an interim government, and then, after two years, democracy. But, Hosseini writes, the plan falls apart overnight. “It was dizzying how quickly everything unraveled.... The Mujahideen, armed to the teeth but now lacking a common enemy, had found the enemy in each other.”
Laila, who has throughout her childhood loved a neighbor boy, Tariq, becomes his lover just before he and his family flee Afghanistan. Soon after, as she and her own parents prepare to leave, a bomb strikes their house and she is orphaned. Rasheed digs her out of the rubble and takes her in. Within weeks, Laila, who is led to believe Tariq is dead, becomes Rasheed’s second wife. And she discovers that she is pregnant.
Over time, as Laila gives birth to a daughter and then a son, she and Mariam bond through housekeeping, child rearing and submitting to Rasheed’s sadistic domination. His abuse is so damaging that the two women plan to escape.
A harrowing journey follows, and they end up in jail with horrific repercussions, a sign of the Taliban’s power to enforce fundamentalist tradition.
What keep this novel vivid and compelling are Hosseini’s eye for the textures of daily life and his ability to portray a full range of human emotions, from the smoldering rage of an abused wife to the early flutters of maternal love when a woman discovers she is carrying a baby.
The final scenes of “A Thousand Splendid Suns” dramatize the heartbreaking power of the bond between Rasheed’s two wives, and the Taliban’s savage punishment of Mariam, in ways unimaginable in the Western world, for her attempts to protect Laila, making Hosseini’s illuminating book a worthy sequel to “The Kite Runner.”
Jane Ciabattari, author of the short-story collection “Stealing the Fire,” is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle and a regular contributor to the board’s blog, Critical Mass.