Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Last night I finished reading A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, the author of The Kite Runner. It's a worthy follow-up, and I think it might have been even more haunting and captivating than his first novel. The book follows the intersecting lives of several women in Afghanistan throughout three decades of recent history. The narrative portrays the impact and brutality of war on local families and communities, and highlights the fact that inhumanity and cruelty often come not from outside enemies but from those closest to you. It's a tragic, heartbreaking story, and yet one laced with hope and redemption.

I won't give away too much of the plot, since it really must be experienced for yourself, but I will say that one discomfiting dimension of the book was that the novel describes events in contemporary history that I've lived through but have been largely ignorant of. As a kid, I vaguely remember hearing something about Soviet troops in Afghanistan but of course had no idea what any of that was about. Like most of us in the West, I only heard of the Taliban after 9/11. Hosseini's novel gives us a startling portrait of the on-the-ground lived realities of life in Afghanistan, particularly the plight of women.

It was disturbing to realize that some of the events described in the book (and lived out by countless Afghan citizens) took place as I was going to college and grad school, getting married and setting up my happy little suburban life - completely unaware of how people around the world were suffering. Several of the characters in the book are roughly the same age as me and my wife, according to the novel's timeline, and it strikes me that they and so many real-life people like them have endured far more trauma and faced more painful choices in their young lives than most of us in the West have encountered. This is the power of good literature, to help us understand and experience what we normally cannot even imagine.

Particularly interesting is the role of religion throughout the book, for good and for bad. I don't know if the author intended the book to be an "Islamic novel" the way we think of our contemporary "Christian novels," but the portrait of Islam in the book is quite realistic, demonstrating both its capacity for fundamentalism and oppression as well as its potential for transcendance and hope. Christian readers of this novel will find that certain plot points have deeply Christian implications and resonances. One particular instance of sacrificial love struck me as profoundly Christ-like, and I wonder if it could serve as an illustrative bridge to the gospel for Muslim or secular readers.

At any rate, this is a significant novel and a fine example of contemporary literary fiction that transcends time and culture. Out of its particulars, it speaks to universals of the human spirit, perseverance and love. It will break your heart, but I also hope that it will enlarge your heart and encourage you to pray for our troubled world.


Mark Goodyear said...

I definitely need to check this out. Too many of the "Christian novels" that I read just use dialogue to sermonize. I'm desperate for some good convincing religious characters.

Brian H. said...

Al, did you see anything that Christians would find offensive in this novel? I thought there was some controversy about his novel The Kite Runner. But I may be mistaken.

Just wondering,

Al Hsu said...

Brian, it's been 8 years since I read it, so I'm afraid I don't remember many of the details at this point! I recall that Kite Runner had some scenes of graphic violence that were very disturbing and heartbreaking, and I think Thousand Splendid Suns was not as bad. As I remember it, the trauma depicted just how real and awful human suffering was in that context, and more than anything else, it should generate understanding and compassion for those who suffered so horribly (and those who face similar experiences today).